Clinton’s 2016 Gender Play

She will share stories meant to connect with working moms. Meanwhile, surrogates will attack.

Honoree Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks onstage at the RFK Ripple Of Hope Gala at Hilton Hotel Midtown on December 16, 2014 in New York City.
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
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Emily Schultheis
Feb. 24, 2015, midnight

SAN FRAN­CISCO — It was in New Hamp­shire, in 2008, when Hil­lary Clin­ton mo­ment­ar­ily let down her guard.

She was com­ing off a stun­ning loss in Iowa when someone in Ports­mouth asked Clin­ton how she got her­self out the door every day. At first, the can­did­ate joked about it: “On spe­cial days, I do have help.” But then she turned ser­i­ous, the stress of the cam­paign show­ing in her voice and on her face. “You know, this is very per­son­al for me,” she said. “It’s not just polit­ic­al, it’s not just pub­lic.”

That flash of emo­tion drove some pun­dits and op­er­at­ives to won­der wheth­er New Hamp­shire would find this cry­ing can­did­ate un­fit for the pres­id­ency. In­stead, voters — par­tic­u­larly wo­men — ral­lied to her, re­ward­ing the hu­man they saw peek­ing out from be­hind the politi­cian and giv­ing her a vic­tory just days after be­ing down by double-di­gits in the polls.

That mo­ment, in the mo­ment, felt like a turn­ing point. But it didn’t change her team’s ap­proach in the re­main­ing months of her can­did­acy.

This time will be dif­fer­ent. As the former sec­ret­ary of State and sen­at­or speaks Tues­day to Lead On, the wo­men’s lead­er­ship con­fer­ence in Sil­ic­on Val­ley, Demo­crat­ic strategists and Clin­ton back­ers say she will try to make dir­ect con­nec­tions with fe­male voters on the trail, shar­ing per­son­al stor­ies and em­bra­cing a gender-based mes­sage that was largely avoided in 2008.

Already, re­cent words and ac­tions hint at the ways she’ll bring gender in­to the 2016 cam­paign — by talk­ing about is­sues like pay equity, af­ford­able child care, and paid fam­ily leave, ref­er­en­cing her past work for wo­men and chil­dren, and gush­ing about her new grand­daugh­ter.

That soft ap­proach will be coupled with a sharp-edged as­sault by sup­port­ing or­gan­iz­a­tions out­side of her camp. Some of them, in­clud­ing EMILY’s List and the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, have be­gun play­ing of­fense against the Re­pub­lic­an field, paint­ing many of the 2016 GOP hope­fuls as anti-wo­man.

“A lot of things have changed since 2008, and I think that will el­ev­ate in some ways the gender as­pect of her cam­paign,” said Celinda Lake, an un­af­fili­ated Demo­crat­ic poll­ster who has done ex­tens­ive re­search on fe­male can­did­ates run­ning for of­fice. “There are many ways in which there’s a wo­man’s lens to her can­did­acy even if she nev­er men­tions the word ‘wo­man.’”

All of this un­der­scores just how im­port­ant Demo­crats think fe­male voters, es­pe­cially un­mar­ried wo­men, will be in de­term­in­ing which party wins the White House in 2016. In 2012, Pres­id­ent Obama won wo­men by a 12-point mar­gin over Re­pub­lic­an Mitt Rom­ney — the largest gender gap in poll­ster Gal­lup’s his­tory, and a fact that played a big role in his vic­tory that Novem­ber. Demo­crats hope to main­tain that edge among fe­male voters in 2016, es­pe­cially with a wo­man on the top of the tick­et.

Clin­ton sup­port­ers ex­pect her to in­cor­por­ate gender in­to her mes­sage par­tially through tone and storytelling, open­ing up and shar­ing the kind of per­son­al ex­per­i­ences that will help her con­nect with fe­male voters.

Mak­ing that easi­er, Lake said, one of the im­port­ant dif­fer­ences from the 2008 cycle is the rise to prom­in­ence of a con­crete set of is­sues typ­ic­ally as­so­ci­ated with fe­male voters: health care ac­cess, abor­tion rights, pay equity, and paid sick and fam­ily leave. “It’s not about simply be­ing a wo­man — it’s about a fo­cus on wo­men and fam­il­ies,” said Marcy Stech, spokes­wo­man for EMILY’s List, a group that backs can­did­ates who sup­port abor­tion rights. “There are no bet­ter can­did­ates to talk about these is­sues than wo­men them­selves, who un­der­stand what wo­men are go­ing through day in and day out.”

Plus, Clin­ton has held new roles since 2008 that give her an ample sup­ply of an­ec­dotes from which to draw, first as sec­ret­ary of State, a job in which she em­phas­ized im­prov­ing rights for wo­men and girls world­wide, and second as a grand­moth­er. Clin­ton made fre­quent ref­er­ence to her grand­daugh­ter in speeches on the midterm cam­paign trail last fall, say­ing the baby had helped her think more about what Char­lotte “can look for­ward to” when she grows up.

“With the grand­moth­er lens, I think you kind of talk about ex­actly that: wis­dom, caring, hold­ing people to­geth­er, hold­ing the fam­ily to­geth­er, and hold­ing the coun­try to­geth­er,” said Ad­rienne Kim­mell, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Bar­bara Lee Fam­ily Found­a­tion, which con­ducts re­search on fe­male can­did­ates run­ning for ex­ec­ut­ive of­fices. “It evokes all sorts of those feel­ings and that kind of im­agery.”

Clin­ton’s spokes­man wouldn’t talk about how the team plans to play gender in 2016. But both where Clin­ton has op­ted to speak and what she says when she’s there in­dic­ate the former sen­at­or is turn­ing a new page with this second bid for the White House. In ad­di­tion to today’s speech, Clin­ton speaks next week at the EMILY’s List gala. Late last year, one of her fi­nal speeches of 2014 came at the Mas­sachu­setts Con­fer­ence for Wo­men, and she also ap­peared at a Decem­ber event for “No Ceil­ings,” the pro­ject she and Chelsea Clin­ton launched at the Clin­ton Found­a­tion.

At the DNC Wo­men’s Lead­er­ship For­um last Septem­ber, Clin­ton brought out an old per­son­al story, re­cycled from her book It Takes a Vil­lage, on the is­sue of child care ac­cess for work­ing moth­ers, hark­en­ing back to her days as a law­yer in Arkan­sas when Chelsea was still young.

“There was one morn­ing where I was due in court at 9:30 a.m. for a tri­al. It was already 7:30 a.m., and Chelsea, just two years old, was run­ning a fever and throw­ing up,” Clin­ton said in that speech. “My hus­band was out of town, the nor­mal babysit­ter called in sick with the same symp­toms, I had no re­l­at­ives liv­ing nearby. I called a trus­ted friend to come to my res­cue, but I felt ter­rible that I had to leave my sick child at all.”

And at a cam­paign rally for Tom Wolf in Phil­adelphia in Oc­to­ber, Clin­ton gave one of her most force­ful and polit­ic­al speeches since she left the State De­part­ment, talk­ing about wo­men’s is­sues in the con­text of eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery and giv­ing hard work­ers a fair shot.

“We have spent years now claw­ing our way back, out of the hole that was dug in 2008, but we have a lot more to do if we want to re­lease our full po­ten­tial and make sure that Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies fi­nally feel the re­wards of re­cov­ery. And that’s par­tic­u­larly true, in my opin­ion, for Amer­ic­an wo­men,” she said. “Ask your­self, why do wo­men still get paid less than men for the same work? Why, after Amer­ic­an wo­men have con­trib­uted so much to our eco­nomy over the dec­ades, do we act as if it were 1955?”

New re­search shows that get­ting per­son­al helps fe­male can­did­ates on the trail. Kim­mell said the group’s re­search has shown a big shift in those voter at­ti­tudes just since 2010. In in­ter­views with can­did­ates, staff, and polit­ic­al con­sult­ants, the Bar­bara Lee Fam­ily Found­a­tion found that wo­men can and should be “360-de­gree can­did­ates” — in oth­er words, that “us­ing all of their ex­pert­ise, back­ground and per­son­al ex­per­i­ences to con­nect with voters” is now an ef­fect­ive strategy.

“Pri­or to 2010, “¦ it wasn’t ne­ces­sar­ily something we would have ad­vised can­did­ates, to share all as­pects of them­selves,” she said. “We saw a really big shift there. “¦ [Wo­men] can use their life ex­per­i­ences to re­late to voters in a way that, pri­or to 2010, we didn’t see.”

And for the tough­er stuff, Demo­crats aren’t wait­ing for an of­fi­cial Clin­ton can­did­acy to start lev­el­ing the anti-wo­man ac­cus­a­tions. Former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee’s riff about “trashy” New York wo­men who curse or the dangers of Bey­on­cé, for in­stance, have drawn sharp re­sponses from the DNC and EMILY’s List.

On Monday, for ex­ample, EMILY’s List cri­ti­cized GOP Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er for his most re­cent com­ments on abor­tion. “Walk­er shifts back to ex­treme on abor­tion,” the press re­lease’s head­line read, call­ing him “com­pletely out of touch.”

Wo­men Vote, the in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure arm of EMILY’s List, is plan­ning for its biggest-ever cam­paign fo­cused on the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Though rep­res­ent­at­ives for the group say spe­cif­ic plans have yet to be ironed out, the group has been act­ively in­volved in ad­voc­at­ing on the pres­id­en­tial level; it launched its “Madam Pres­id­ent” ini­ti­at­ive in spring 2013.

Per­haps the biggest be­ne­fit to Clin­ton of these gender-based mes­sages is the fact that, done right, it could help her con­nect with voters in a way she only hin­ted at in 2008 — and com­bat the out-of-touch im­age Re­pub­lic­ans are seek­ing to build in the lead-up to her ex­pec­ted an­nounce­ment.

“We hear all the time about the role of au­then­ti­city in polit­ics and how im­port­ant that is,” said Tracy Se­fl, a Demo­crat­ic strategist and seni­or ad­viser to Ready for Hil­lary. “And for a wo­man to talk about her lived ex­per­i­ence as a wo­man — that’s as au­then­t­ic as it gets.”

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