Hillary Clinton and the challenges of a woman in the White House

Hillary Clinton is a top contender for the democratic nomination. But as a woman, does Hillary face hidden impediments to her bid for the White House?

To get a deeper understanding we spoke with Brian Frederick who is an associate professor and chair of political science at Bridgewater State University, US. Frederick has written extensively on women in politics.

ResearchGate: Hillary Clinton is running for office again following her loss to Barack Obama in 2008. How do you see her campaign shaping up so far?

Brian Frederick: Secretary Clinton hasn’t campaigned for a while and that absence from the political fray has manifested itself with some less than stellar performances on the trail earlier this year. I expect her to continue to improve as demonstrated by her well received speech at a recent Iowa campaign event. Secretary Clinton is an overwhelming front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination leading in fundraising and endorsements while enjoying strong support among key Democratic Party constituencies. Yes, her favorable ratings have declined since she entered the race but this outcome was predictable for a former Secretary of State reentering the normal rough and tumble of a highly partisan campaign. Her lead in national polls of Democratic Party identifiers has also diminished with the emergence of a more formidable than expected campaign by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. However, she remains well positioned to win the nomination in 2016. The issue of emails Secretary Clinton sent and received on her private account has certainly not helped her cause, but unless more serious allegations are unearthed, it should not prevent her from winning the nomination or the general election next year.

RG: What would a Hillary Clinton presidency mean for women in politics?

Frederick: A Clinton presidency would be a monumental breakthrough for women in politics. A campaign victory speech on election night 2016 and an inaugural address in January of 2017 would be powerful symbolism that the metaphorical “males only” sign on the White House is gone for good. On the other hand, we shouldn’t overreact to what this development means for women in politics either. Men still dominate the political arena as women hold approximately twenty percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress and only six of the nation’s fifty governors are female. There is long way to until gender parity is achieved in U.S. politics.

RG: Your research from 2008 argues that polls in favor of female candidates like Hillary Clinton could suffer from “social desirability effects.” In other words people only say they would like a female president in polls because they don’t want to be seen as sexist. Can you explain these results?

Frederick: Most public opinion polls indicate an overwhelming percentage of the U.S. population would support a qualified female presidential nominee of their party and that percentage has remained above 90 percent since we conducted our study. However, we questioned whether the percentage of the population is actually that high. Because of social desirability norms some voters may not feel comfortable disclosing to pollsters that they are concerned about the idea of a female president. Asking voters to openly admit bias against female presidential candidates is not a valid way to assess the true level of bias that exists in the electorate. Our approach to overcoming this obstacle was to employ the list experiment. Using a nationally representative sample, two randomly selected groups were asked to identify the number of items from a list of statements that made them angry or upset. The respondents didn’t have to identify which of the statements made them angry only the number. The only difference between the two groups was that one list contained the additional statement “the idea of a female president.” We calculated the difference between the control and experimental groups to estimate that about 26 percent of the U.S. population was upset with the idea of a female president. These results don’t mean that the respondents would never vote for a female president but that female candidates might have to confront a portion of the electorate who would find it difficult to cast vote for a woman to be president.

RG: Do you think female candidates still face the same challenges in 2016?

Frederick: We have not replicated our study for the 2016 election cycle but there may be reason to believe that perhaps some of this bias has waned. As I mentioned previously, the percentage of voters saying they would support a qualified presidential candidate has remained above 90 percent for more than a decade now. According to a June 2015 Gallup survey 92 percent of U.S. adults say they would do so. Of course greater numbers of women have operated in positions of power over the past decade which may have caused voters with reservations about a female president to reexamine that their views on the subject.

RG: How are the challenges Hillary faces similar or different to the challenges Barack Obama faced as the first African-American president?

Frederick: Female and African American candidates for president likely suffer from some degree of discrimination from pockets of the electorate. A 2009 study using the list experiment methodology discovered that there are also social desirability effects in polls that indicate high levels of support for an African American president. That bias does not mean that women or persons of color cannot become president just that it might be more challenging than traditional polls suggest. The major difference between Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 is that she has a much longer track record in American politics than he did in his first campaign for president. Hillary is a known commodity and a resume that differentiates her from any other serious candidate in U.S. political history. That background can be a benefit in terms of enjoying strong support from the establishment of the Democratic Party, and a liability with those voters upset over the status quo in Washington who want fundamental change.

RG: Do you think female candidates receive a lot more politically unrelated criticism?

Frederick: That conclusion was supported by earlier academic research and by anecdotes mined from the coverage of high profile candidates in recent years. However, research by political scientists Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless examining U.S. House campaigns in the 2010 election cycle revealed that female candidates do not suffer from more negative press coverage than male candidates. Hillary Clinton has certainly received her share of negative coverage but this pattern has more to do with the mutual dislike between the Clintons and the media that goes back decades than it does with her gender. The playing field for female candidates may not be entirely level when it comes to media treatment but women are at less of a disadvantage than they were just a few decades ago.

RG: Does campaigning on women’s issues like the closing the gender pay gap, hurt or strengthen Clinton’s appeal?

Frederick: One of the criticisms the Clinton campaign received quite frequently in the 2008 primary election is that she failed to emphasize the historical nature of campaign as the first women with a realistic chance to win a major party nomination for the presidency. Hillary Clinton seems to have taken this lesson to heart this time around by not shying away from gender related issues. She has consistently emphasized issues such as gender pay equity, paid sick leave, support for reproductive health services and expanding access to child care. When Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell accused her of playing the gender card earlier this year she embraced his criticism by responding: “There she goes again with the women’s issues. Well, I’m not going to stop, so get ready for a long campaign.”

Considering the advantage Democrats enjoy with female voters Hillary Clinton is right to emphasize issues of importance to women. She will need a clear edge among women in the general election in order to prevail. However, she has to be careful not to overplay her hand like some Democratic candidates for Senate did in 2014 by focusing too much on abortion and contraception at the expense of other important issues like the economy and national security. A major gaffe by one of her potential male opponents like the one committed by Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012 when he referred to “legitimate rape” in the context of abortion policy would be helpful to her cause.

RG: What do you think of her chances to become president?

Frederick: In the big picture Hillary Clinton is an overwhelming favorite to become the Democratic nominee for President in 2016. She also should be considered a slight favorite win the general election. If she does end up losing, factors other than her gender will likely be more powerful contributors to her defeat. Nevertheless, even if a small percentage a voters harbor doubts about a woman president it could be a drag on her electoral fortunes. Whatever happens scholars of women in politics will have plenty to write about for years to come.

Image courtesy of Diego Cambiaso