Our Hillary Clinton Problem

Why are older, elite women voters so ambivalent on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy?

Interview by Katherine Lanpher
Illustration: Philip Burke
Brazile: They get a message, and as a result they get a degree of comfort around the candidate. I can give you candidate after candidate I’ve worked with, and once those women gravitate toward you, you are locked. You are set to get 35 to 40 percent of the vote, and they never leave you. These women vote on pocketbook issues. They like strong advocates for children, strong advocates for public education; they want to hear candidates champion healthcare. With Hillary Clinton, they feel comfortable standing behind her. She has strong support among women of color, working women, blue-collar women; they’re not going anywhere soon.MORE: What about black women? Aren’t they moving from Hillary to Obama? Brazile: Well, they’re looking at Obama, but they’re not moving in any large numbers. Black women are the biggest prize in my judgment, because according to the current population survey, black women voter turnout rates increased from 57 percent to 60 percent in 2004. It seems to me that Obama is stalled in the polls because Obama cannot move black women. Hillary can.MORE: How much of women’s ambivalence is a reaction to the Clinton marriage? Brazile: Eleven percent of Republicans interviewed in a Gallup poll said they have a problem with the idea of Bill back in the White House. That’s not bad. I saw it as high as 30 percent when she first ran for the Senate, and it’s down to 11 percent.Tannen: Women in general are more likely to be seen through their relationships to men. You can be a male candidate and say very little about your marriage, but if you’re a woman, people want to know if you’re married and if so, what that partnership is like. The fact that she uses "Hillary" is good. From one point of view, it’s annoying that she’s called by her first name. We don’t talk about Joe and Bill and John and Barack and Christopher: They all go by last names, but she’s "Hillary." In this case it’s good, however, because it doesn’t constantly remind people of the man she’s married to.Brazile: Remember that throughout the Clinton presidency, and even beyond, she has remained one of the most admired women in the country.MORE: A Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, said, "Put gender aside, just treat her as you would any other candidate." How possible is that? Brazile: [Laughs] Well, the Republicans have put gender aside. That’s the problem. She has been treated like every male candidate I’ve ever worked for. The Republicans have never held back on Hillary; they’ve been attacking her since 1991. Pat Buchanan attacked her at the 1992 convention. Dole criticized her book It Takes a Village in 1996. So, 16 years after the Republicans started this attack against her, she’s still standing with her 48 or 49 percent approval rating nationally; that’s a good thing. George Bush won in 2004 with a 47 percent disapproval rating. Hillary can, if she has the right message, energize not just the party base but also the swing voters across the country and become the first female president. She’s well-positioned.Tannen: Gender is always there in how we react to people, whether or not we’re thinking about it as gender. That’s going to sometimes work in a woman’s favor and sometimes against her, but it’s always there.Brazile: We look at her clothes; we look at her makeup. We listen to her every word; we watch her gestures. I was at the Democratic candidates’ debate at Howard University, and throughout the debate I kept looking over at her, just to check her body language versus Biden’s, Obama’s, and Edwards’s. Edwards had his hands in his pockets most of the time when other candidates were speaking. Hillary looked like someone had told her to stand up straight — don’t slouch. It was weird watching her body language versus the guys’, who had more wiggle room to relax.Tannen: Everyone’s watching her. So she has a reason to be more careful. There’s a "blame the victim" thing here. She has to watch every word because she’s under scrutiny. Then she’s blamed for not being natural. MORE: What impact do you think Hillary’s campaign is going to have on other women? We often hear about her as the transitional candidate. Brazile: It will be a plus for generations to come.

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