Hillary Clinton must be more than “the female candidate”

The 2016 presidential favourite will falter if she continues to use gender as her selling point

In an effort to avoid falling victim to Einstein’s definition of insanity, Hillary Clinton has used her gender as a qualifier for office, claiming that it is time for a female president. Yet if Clinton believes Americans will vote for her because she is a woman, initial results offer little reason to hope.

In Iowa, Clinton won 53% of the female vote, but her returns in New Hampshire were worse, winning only 44%. Clinton’s primary results have been even worse amongst men (44% in Iowa, 32% in New Hampshire), those under 29 (14% and 16%) and critically, registered independents (26% and 27%). The troubles are not limited to the two primary results. In Nevada, Clinton narrowly won and though she won South Carolina more comfortably, Bernie Sanders received 26% of the vote, compared to his 10% polling back in September. Much like 2008, the notion of Clinton’s invulnerability is being dispelled. Her campaign is only helping in this endeavor. 

Perhaps regretting the lack of gender politics in her 2008 campaign, Clinton’s concession speech proclaimed that she had put “18 million cracks” in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling”. Eight years later, gender is at the forefront. Clinton’s first campaign speech boldly declared that “when women get ahead, everyone gets ahead” and arguing that “Our mothers and sisters and daughters are on the front lines  ... We have to win together.” The rhetoric does not seem to be translating into ballot success. What Clinton can make up for in vitriol, she lacks in subtly and an ability to tie her disadvantage in with a broader narrative. Furthermore, those that dismiss her are not doing so because of her gender. Polls find that up to 55% of people think of her as dishonest, untrustworthy, and uncaring of their needs and problems. Republicans have realised this, and have attacked her proximity to the establishment and lack of integrity, rather than her femininity.                                                                                                            

If her campaign is going to be fixed, Clinton must take inspiration from both the last candidate to defeat her in a national election and her current challenger. Barack Obama, whose race could have provided a similar narrative to Clinton’s gender, completely rejected the idea that he was the “Black” candidate. His launch speech in 2007 made no reference to race and in both victory addresses, the word “Black” appeared once in each, and not in reference to himself. The words “African-American” do not appear at all. Obama’s campaign was less about who he was, than the vision he offered. Bernie Sanders, who also offers a vision, is drawing a powerful coalition of young (84% in Iowa, 83% in New Hampshire), low income (57% and 72%) and college-educated voters (44% and 56%), but also appears to be winning blue collar and middle class whites (46% and 57%) who voted for  Clinton in 2008. Presently, Clinton offers no vision and fails to inspire voters. Instead, she invites them to be content with her as “a progressive who gets things done.” This may not win her the nomination, and it offers no guarantee that she will be able to build on President Obama’s 5 million vote majority from 2012.

Clinton is right, it is time for a female president, but she seems to be the only one who believes her gender is a barrier to the White House. Unless she offers a broader vision beyond the fact that she is a woman, the distinction of being the first “Madam President” will fall to someone else.

 Jonathan Harty is a Young Fabians member

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