Photo Credit: Adam Schultz for Hillary for America, CC-BY-NC-SA
Photo Credit: Adam Schultz for Hillary for America, CC-BY-NC-SA

Last week in Alexandria, Va., 300 people packed into an event for Hillary Clinton featuring her husband, former President Bill Clinton, despite a torrential downpour and tornado warnings. On Monday, ahead of the Super Tuesday state’s vote, the fire marshall had to hold back a line of people unable to get in to see Hillary Clinton at George Mason University in Fairfax.

The women at these multiracial, multiethnic rallies were enthusiastic, and large numbers were young, says Allida Black, chair and co-founder of Ready for Hillary, the super PAC that formed to convince the former Secretary of State to take another shot at becoming the first woman president in U.S. history.

“Women are incredibly engaged in this campaign,” says Black, a Virginian who today directs a digital media project called Let’s Talk Hillary (and hosted an overflow event at her home recently). “The support here is palpable, it’s enthusiastic and it’s motivating women who have never been involved in politics before.”

The Clinton campaign should hope that women across the country are fired up. After all, the so-called “women’s vote” has the potential to seal the Democratic nomination for Clinton — as well as the presidency itself. Though of course, a few things have to happen first.

Campaigning for the Women’s Vote

The first battle — the internal one — has already been won: Clinton’s 2016 campaign is going after the women’s vote. It has fully embraced her gender and the historic nature of her candidacy, in a shift in strategy from Clinton’s primary battle against Barack Obama eight years ago. The 2008 team played down gender, amid conventional wisdom that voters worried whether a woman would be tough enough to lead the free world, and “ran her as tough and ready to serve on Day One,” says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.

The 2008 approach no doubt seemed right as pundits criticized her “cackle” and groused about feeling emasculated by her. But it looked wrong after Obama won the primary and the presidency by capitalizing on the historic nature of his election to drive record African-American turnout and take 93 percent of its vote, 60 percent of which is female.

It also looked wrong when Clinton’s concession-speech quip about putting 18 million cracks in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” struck a chord. And it looked even more wrong when women handed Obama the presidency twice; the gender gap, or difference between the female and male vote for Obama, was 7 points in 2008 and 10 points in 2012.

This time around, Clinton is playing being a woman as a strength, talking frequently about being a mother, grandmother, feminist, battle-tested champion of women’s empowerment, and potential first woman president. She has enlisted an array of women celebrities and women’s groups to rally the women’s vote.

While the Clinton campaign still argues that Americans should vote for her on her merits — experience, readiness for the job — this time “one of her merits is being a woman, it’s a value-add to her resume,” Walsh says.

The new strategy has fit Clinton more comfortably, many observers say, since Clinton has spent much of her life working for the empowerment of women and girls. It also looks like the smarter strategy, given the growing power of women in the Democratic party and in the electorate as a whole.

The Democratic Primaries

The women’s vote is key to a Democratic primary win. Since the early 1980s, a greater proportion of women than men have been Democrats. In 2014, 36 percent of women identified as Democrats, compared to 20 percent of men. Democratic primaries and caucuses also tend to attract more female than male participants.

But historically women have voted less on gender than on the issues that matter to them. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival in the primaries, is attracting many women supporters. In particular, young women, along with young men, have been moved by Sanders’ promises to make healthcare universal and college free, to take Wall Street down a peg and level the economic playing field for middle-class and working people.

A bevy of articles have appeared in recent weeks describing a weakness with young women, especially white college-educated women, that appeared during the first two primary contests. Clinton is failing to inspire this constituency and connect on the issues they care about, the arguments went. Opposed to endless war abroad and motivated by racial, LGBT and economic justice issues, some observers say young women don’t like Hillary the hawk and the realist and see her as flawed because she is wealthy, white and privileged.

Supporters argue that many young women don’t know enough about Clinton’s long history fighting for progressive causes, particularly access to healthcare and an array of women’s issues. Others say young women aren’t animated by gender or keen to put Clinton in the White House the way older women are because they enjoy lives of greater equality during college — lives that will change when they enter the workplace and experience “late-breaking sexism.”

But Black says large swaths of millennial women are behind Clinton’s candidacy — indeed they were the muscle behind Ready for Hillary.

Democratic Women's Vote“There is broad support for Hillary, and there’s broad support for Hillary among of women of all ages,” says Black, who has travelled to 30 states for Clinton. “Women are knocking down the doors to do all they can to help her. They are canvassing, they’re raising money, they’re having house parties. They’re doing things they have never done in their lives.”

In fact, Clinton is leading among Democratic women overall. According to exit and entrance polling tracked by CNN through Super Tuesday, she has won the women’s vote in every primary except New Hampshire and Vermont, where Sanders won the overall votes handily. And crucially, she is harnessing the power of enthusiastic African-American women.

The General Election

The women’s vote is also crucial for the general election. Women make up more than half the U.S. population and have cast between 4 million and 7 million more votes than men in recent national elections, according to Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a nonpartisan project of CAWP and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. Those votes matter in an era of razor-close national elections.

But the women’s vote is not monolithic and will not break 93 percent in favor of Clinton the way the African-American vote did for Obama. “The women’s vote is important, and it will play a huge role, but I just think that women are diverse — and women are Republicans, women are Tea Party,” Black says.

In fact, any Democrat, male or female, has an advantage with women, because women have long favored Democrats. In 2014, 52 percent of women were Democrats or Independents who leaned Democratic, compared to 36 percent who leaned Republican, according to Pew Research Center. Women were decisive in Obama’s 2012 victory, when 55 percent voted for him, compared to 44 percent for Mitt Romney.

The big question is: Can Clinton’s gender help her win the women’s vote by a bigger margin, and could such a surge carry her into office?

Maybe. But Clinton will have to reach deep into Independent women ranks and potentially woo moderate Republican women as well.

Black says she knows moderate Republican women who may shift to Clinton in the general election, but inroads could be limited. While Democratic women are driven largely by economic issues and defending the social safety net, Republican women are concerned principally about national security and terrorism, Walsh says. Clinton’s reputation as a hawk could help her, but she is destined to face a tough-talking Republican who speaks more directly to these voters. Focusing on Independent women could be more fruitful.

Another challenge is deep-rooted social attitudes and biases about women that could well surface in the privacy of the voting booth. After all, a 2015 YouGov poll found that only 67 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is ready to elect a woman president.

Indeed, Clinton could be weighed down by sexism, overt and subtle, and the fears of her 2008 campaign team could prove correct. Both women and men could be deterred by a subtle “double bind” that affects women in authority: the demand they be both good leaders and good women, when the qualities society assigns to each are direct opposites (forceful/gentle, confident/self-effacing). And they could choose the simpler action: vote for a male leader.

Photo Credit: Barbara Kinney for Hillary for America, CC-BY-NC
Photo Credit: Barbara Kinney for Hillary for America, CC-BY-NC

With all of this in play, the campaign could fail to energize women and drive them to the polls in large numbers on election day.

All signs so far point to electric energy for Clinton from older women and women of color fed in part by the opportunity to elect the first woman president. But Clinton will need to mobilize tougher groups too: women who are fired up by Bernie Sanders, Independent women and moderate Republican women.

“Is Hillary’s gender going to be a motivator? Is that going to give her an extra advantage?” Walsh asks. “It has the potential to do that.”

Take, for example, two 2012 races featuring non-incumbent Democratic women candidates who did manage to get out the women’s vote. According to data from CAWP, Elizabeth Warren won her Massachusetts Senate seat with 59 percent of the women’s vote and a 12-point gender gap (she won 47 percent of men). Similarly, Maggie Hassan was first elected governor of New Hampshire with 60 percent of the women’s vote and an 11-point gender gap (49 percent of men).

Could Clinton similarly win 60 percent of women — 5 points more than Obama won in 2012? That could be a worthy goal for the campaign. While the Warren and Hassan contests were in firmly blue states, they did not benefit from comparable historic significance.

Black, for one, has set her sights even higher: “Would I love to see 65 percent of women vote for Hillary? Absolutely. Would I tap dance on the moon if we got 70 percent? Absolutely.”

Though the gender gap is driven mainly by party, “a Democratic woman in the race can intensify the gender gap. That’s what we’ll be watching for,” Walsh says. “There might be more turnout for her, and she might inspire more women to be engaged — and you’re seeing that now.”