Our Hillary Clinton Problem

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

Interview by Katherine Lanpher
Illustration: Philip Burke

Hillary Clinton and Women VotersFrom op-ed pages to dinner parties to opinion polls, the verdict so far on Hillary Clinton’s campaign progress seems to be this: She has a woman problem. And that problem is us.The Washington Post/ABC News and the New York Times/CBS News polls from June and July, for instance, showed Clinton drawing strong support from younger women and from women with no more than a high school education. But when it comes to older, affluent, highly educated women, Clinton’s numbers lag. In other words, the very women most like Clinton are the ones who are the most ambivalent about her candidacy. What does that say about her? About us?We invited Donna Brazile, veteran political analyst, Georgetown University lecturer in women’s studies, and former Gore presidential campaign manager, to talk with Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation and other bestselling books about communication gaps. What does Hillary need to say to us? What do we want to hear? Read on. MORE: Have you seen proof of educated, professional women’s ambivalence about Hillary in your own life? Brazile: Yes, I’ve seen it, and it’s in the polls. Hillary Clinton is doing well with women voters. But elite women — upper-income women, women with certain educational status — tend to be either in the undecided column or leaning toward Obama or Edwards. She’s having a much tougher time starting a conversation with them.MORE: Why are these women resisting her campaign? Brazile: They clearly want this first woman who actually has a shot at being president to be strong and successful so they won’t be embarrassed, but they also seem concerned about whether she’s going to play the political game in a way that would alienate them or somehow push women back. It’s a conundrum her campaign has to deal with. Unlike working-class women, who tend to make up their minds pretty quickly in the campaign process, these women often wait until the very last minute.MORE: What are they waiting for? Brazile: They want what’s called a comfort zone. They want more information. You know, for eight years, as an adviser on both of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, I had to defend Hillary. She was tough, she was smart; she’s a woman of strong conviction. She’s actually a doer. I mean, she loves hard work. But people clearly did not understand her. Her dilemma today, even as the front-runner, is that most Americans don’t know her.Tannen: Also, the popular girl is widely hated. Which sounds like an oxymoron: If she’s popular, doesn’t that mean everybody loves her? No, it doesn’t. Donna Eder, a sociologist at Indiana University, studied middle school girls and found this: Girls get status by being close to the popular girl, and the popular girl can’t be best friends with everybody; she’s going to necessarily reject the overtures of most girls, so they hate her. Other researchers have found that girls don’t like a girl who stands out. All this is at work in the feelings women have about a woman leader, especially if they think they should identify with her. Boys work differently. There is a leader, the high-status boy, and he tells the others what to do. Everybody accepts that.Brazile: There’s something else at play. Younger women, women 18 to 29 years old, say thatHillary’s being the first woman to hold the job would be the best thing about her being elected president. They’re excited. But older women, more successful women, are very sensitive to any assumption that they would support Hillary Clinton on gender grounds. They prefer to come to their own decisions based on issues, her performance in debates and on the campaign trail, her ability to compete.Tannen: Do those same women feel uncomfortable about saying it would be great to have Obama because it would be great to have a black president?Brazile: Well, that’s interesting. On "Would you be more willing to support a black candidate?" I’m seeing that voters tend to give Obama a bigger boost than Hillary gets from the supporting-a-woman question.MORE: How much of the ambivalence is because our generation thought a woman president would change the system, not simply play the game better than the others? Brazile: This could be generational.

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