Against The Grain

Hillary Clinton’s Problem With Men

Clinton is performing as poorly with men as Republicans do with Hispanics. She won’t win a general election unless she can close the gender gap.

Clinton is trying to re-create President Obama's coalition from 2012. Is that a realistic proposition?
Jonathan Torgovnik AFP/Getty
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Oct. 7, 2015, 8 p.m.

When Hil­lary Clin­ton entered the pres­id­en­tial race, she ex­pec­ted to win over­whelm­ing sup­port among wo­men in her bid to be­come the first fe­male pres­id­ent. In­stead, she’s find­ing out that an un­pre­ced­en­ted level of res­ist­ance to her can­did­acy among men is un­der­min­ing the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that she’d be the strongest Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in the gen­er­al elec­tion.   

Put an­oth­er way: Clin­ton is now nearly as un­pop­u­lar with men as Don­ald Trump is with wo­men. That’s say­ing something.

The latest round of polling for Clin­ton is bru­tal. This week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al/Mar­ist sur­vey in Iowa shows her fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing with men at a mere 27 per­cent, while two-thirds view her un­fa­vor­ably. Her minus-39 net fa­vor­ab­il­ity with men is 28 points worse than Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden and 27 points be­hind Sen. Bernie Sanders. The story is the same in New Hamp­shire, where the NBC/WSJ/Mar­ist poll found both Sanders and Biden with net-pos­it­ive rat­ings, while Clin­ton’s ap­prov­al is deeply un­der­wa­ter, stuck at 30 per­cent.

The swing-state polling is a mir­ror im­age of her na­tion­al num­bers. Last week, Quin­nipi­ac found Clin­ton’s neg­at­ive rat­ings with white men at a stun­ning 72 per­cent—sig­ni­fic­antly worse than the Demo­crat­ic Party’s already-ser­i­ous struggles with that demo­graph­ic group. Mean­while, she’s not per­form­ing at nearly a strong-enough level with wo­men to coun­ter­act the prob­lem. Only 49 per­cent of wo­men viewed her fa­vor­ably in the poll, with 47 per­cent hold­ing neg­at­ive views. For all the self-in­flic­ted prob­lems that Re­pub­lic­ans have in reach­ing out to a di­ver­si­fy­ing coun­try, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity with white men is worse than Jeb Bush’s with His­pan­ics, Ben Car­son’s with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, and Carly Fior­ina’s with wo­men in the same sur­vey.

In­deed, in poll after poll, both Biden and Sanders run much more com­pet­it­ively against Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers, al­most en­tirely be­cause they don’t turn off half of the elect­or­ate.  

If Clin­ton is look­ing to nar­row the gap­ing gender gap, she isn’t show­ing it. In­stead, her cam­paign looks to be do­ing the op­pos­ite—ral­ly­ing her lib­er­al base and try­ing to lock down sup­port­ers that once seemed squarely in her camp. She sat down for an in­ter­view last week with Girls cre­at­or Lena Dun­ham, where she un­der­scored her fem­in­ist bona fides. She’s ap­peared on tele­vi­sion shows with a siz­able fe­male audi­ence, in­clud­ing El­len, in hopes of mak­ing her look more re­lat­able. Her call for ro­bust gun con­trol in the wake of the Ore­gon school shoot­ing isn’t go­ing to make her any friends with Demo­crat­ic gun own­ers, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately male. The early dia­gnos­is from the cam­paign is that she’s un­der­achiev­ing with wo­men—her nat­ur­al base—and that’s the most cru­cial short-term fix, not the dis­mal show­ing with men.  

Part of her back-to-the-base strategy is to counter mo­mentum from Sanders, who is shap­ing up as a ser­i­ous threat against Clin­ton, at least in the New Hamp­shire primary and Iowa caucuses. Sanders’ biggest weak­ness is on guns—he’s op­posed vari­ous gun-con­trol meas­ures dur­ing his con­gres­sion­al ca­reer—and Clin­ton is now ad­voc­at­ing for stricter reg­u­la­tions to draw a sharp con­trast. Even among Demo­crats, Clin­ton lags be­hind Sanders with men, but she holds sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vant­ages with wo­men. As the only wo­man in a primary field of men, it’s lo­gic­al to play to your primary strength.

But at some point, her cam­paign will have to grapple with why her sup­port has cratered so badly among men. Did the cam­paign’s ini­tial plan to play up Clin­ton’s soft, grand­moth­erly per­sona back­fire at a time of mount­ing glob­al tur­moil? Is it a con­sequence of the cam­paign’s un­abashedly lib­er­al turn on so­cial is­sues, par­tic­u­larly on abor­tion rights, im­mig­ra­tion, and gun con­trol? Or is it simply a product of her over­all low ap­prov­al num­bers, dampened by the on­go­ing de­vel­op­ments about her hand­ling of clas­si­fied email at the State De­part­ment?  

Make no mis­take: Biden is lean­ing in­to the pres­id­en­tial race dir­ectly be­cause of these elect­ab­il­ity is­sues. He ex­pressed little in­terest in the race un­til Clin­ton’s num­bers star­ted to tank. Look at his re­cent cam­paign-style sched­ule; he’s already demon­strat­ing that he’s able to uni­fy dis­par­ate ele­ments with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party—back­slap­ping uni­on rank-and-file in Pitt­s­burgh on Labor Day, hold­ing an event about com­bat­ing sexu­al as­sault weeks later, and giv­ing a well-re­ceived key­note ad­dress to the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign last week­end. Among the gen­er­al elect­or­ate, Biden fares bet­ter than Clin­ton with both wo­men and men. He’ll subtly make the case that nom­in­at­ing Clin­ton is too much of a risk to take in such a con­sequen­tial elec­tion—an ar­gu­ment that seems to be re­ceiv­ing a fair hear­ing at the White House.

It’s aw­fully iron­ic that some of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s sharpest strategists, who once saw Clin­ton as uniquely cap­able of mo­bil­iz­ing the Demo­crat­ic base be­cause of her ground­break­ing bio­graphy, are now hedging their bets—by look­ing at the 72-year-old Biden as a more-cred­ible can­did­ate cap­able of stop­ping the party’s prob­lems with men.

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