How Much Support Does Hillary Actually Lose Because She’s A Woman?

An experiment suggests that Hillary's gender is a bigger obstacle than race was for Obama

Hillary Clinton, apparent threat to manhood. REUTERS/David McNew — REUTERS
Mar 28, 2016 at 1:44 PM ET

Do voters dislike Hillary Clinton because of her policies, or because of her gender? While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, the answer is that being a woman is still a major hurdle—in fact, according to a new study, it’s a bigger obstacle for her than Obama’s race was in the 2008 election.

We see her margin dropping by about eight points when we bring up the gender issue,” Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, told Vocativ. The study only quantifies how much gender could hurt Clinton’s chances in the 2016 race—but it also provides an interesting comparison to Barack Obama and his challenges as the first nominee in 2008. The gender challenge, “is about twice as big as the effect of race on Obama,” says Cassino. 

The experimental study was embedded in a political survey of New Jersey voters, who lean Democratic. Half of those polled received a priming question, intended to get them thinking about gender roles: “In many American households, women now earn more money than their spouses. How about your household? Would you say your spouse earns more than you less than you, about the same or is your spouse unemployed?”

“The whole goal of that question is to activate what we call gender role threat” says Cassino. “The idea that especially among men, there are things that are threatening their masculinity.” He argues that “Hillary Clinton is a particularly potent source” of this threat, since from the beginning of her career in the national spotlight, she refused to take a traditionally feminine backseat to her husband. Way back in 1978, when Bill Clinton was running for governor of Arkansas, she created a mini scandal by keeping her job and her last name. (She later took the name Clinton under pressure from advisers.)

She is not binding to the typical role of what a woman has been traditionally in American politics and American society,” says Cassino.

The priming question on gender had a significant effect: “About one in four men are changing their votes based on when we bring up gender considerations,” the study found. Clinton received moderately more support among women after the priming question, but that was more than offset by the men fleeing for Trump out of conscious or unconscious fear of their deteriorating dominance.

The authors also ran the same survey with Bernie Sanders replacing Hillary Clinton as the choice for Democratic nominee against Donald Trump, and found no effect from the priming question—support for Sanders remained constant.

“If Clinton were running against somebody other than Donald Trump, this would be a huge problem,” says Cassino. If a different Republican were in the lead, like former candidate Marco Rubio, anti-woman sentiment could swing the election, but “Trump is so much more profoundly damaged [than Clinton], that she can win even with this handicap.”

The issue of race in the 2008 election led Obama to examine the issue in an eloquent, iconic speech. The issue of gender in this election, where Hillary Clinton is currently closer to the presidency than any woman in American history, has taken a back seat by comparison. There have been few high-profile speeches from Clinton on the momentous potential of electing the first female president woman into office. Instead, the issue of her gender has often been a cudgel in the service of yucky, inevitable Democratic in-fighting.

According to Cassino, who conducted similar work on race and Obama in the 2008 election, Clinton’s gender is a disadvantage to her regardless of how she presents herself to voters. If she presents herself as competent and decisive, she’s seen as not conforming to femininity. If she were to present herself as a nurturing grandmother, hyper masculine Trump could easily paint her as weak.

“The long term solution for this is that we elect enough women that…we’ve normalized it,” says Cassino. “In the short term there’s no way for Hillary Clinton to get out of this.”