All of which suggests the original comments might actually help Clinton, the first woman to be making such a victory speech in a U.S. presidential nomination contest, instead of hurting her.
Why? Because they play right into the Clinton style of “running as a woman.”
But what does “running as a woman” mean?
The idea of “running as a woman”— which gained traction in the wake of the 1992 “Year of the Woman” elections — is the strategic embrace of a female candidate’s gender in particular political contexts. It was a novel idea at its inception.
The standing assumption was that women running for office most needed to prove themselves on the masculine traits typically associated with politics — “tough,” “decisive,” “strong leaders” and the like.
But in 1992, some had the insight that when voters were fed up with politics as usual, maybe running as someone unusual to politics — a woman — would be a good idea. It worked, delivering record numbers of women to Congress, including Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Clinton has repeatedly played this strategy against her “anti-establishment” Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders. Most visibly, she rebuffed his efforts to pin the establishment label on her in the February MSNBC debate with the line that only he would think of “a woman running to be the first woman president as exemplifying the establishment.”
But it was in line with Americans’ general notions of women and politics. Stereotypically, women are honest and moral, while politicians are not. Women are compassionate, while politicians are aggressive. Indeed, many studies in political science and psychology document the disconnect between widely held stereotypical notions of women and notions of political leaders. (There may be more overlap between beliefs about traits of women and of good leaders.) There is even evidence that in times of crisis, voters are less interested in “male” leadership traits, because they associate women with positive change.
In general, party trumps gender. But voters are individual, not general.
In general, voters choose their party first, no matter who is on the ballot. So gender stereotypes aren’t something we find as big, reliable predictors of vote choices. Nicole Bauer’s excellent recent Monkey Cage piece explains that and more about gender and voters’ decisions.
But the “running as a woman” strategy is not about influencing the criteria that will guide the average voter. As a campaign move, it’s more aimed at finding particular pockets of movable voters, or further motivating likely supporters to get to the polls, volunteer or open their wallets.
So how exactly does someone “run as a woman”?
For Clinton, the strategy has included a stream of reminders about gender discrimination faced by ordinary Americans and political figures alike. She regularly mentions gender pay inequity. She often notes what a historic feat it would be to elect her as the first woman president.
Tuesday night’s pundit commentary about her victory speech simply gave her campaign more ammunition for that stream. The pushback reinforced what we find in data on the Democratic primary: Some of Clinton’s more fervent support is among those who perceive gender-based discrimination to be a really big problem.
Data from the 2016 American National Election Study Pilot Study show this pattern. Overall, Democratic respondents (including Democratic-leaning independents) gave Clinton a 63-37 edge over Bernie Sanders. But prospective voters who stated that women face a great deal of discrimination in the United States preferred Clinton by a 76-24 margin. That’s a pretty significant 13 percentage-point increase in support.
For Democrats who reported that they themselves had faced a great deal of discrimination because of their sex and/or gender, the preference jumped yet again. Those Democrats preferred Clinton over Sanders by 82-18.
These are small slices of the group, it’s true: only about 7 and 8 percent of those who identify as Democrats, respectively. But they are good campaign targets. More than half of those who reported facing a great deal of personal gender discrimination also said that they had donated to a campaign or displayed their preference publicly (worn a button, put up a sign), or both, in the last year. Less than 30 percent of Democrats generally had done the same.
These are the sorts of people who quite likely will, when provoked by displays of sexism, get fired up and staff volunteer phone banks, go door to door, donate more, or at least make sure they get themselves to the polls on election day, thus shoring up those winning margins.
Just as important, Clinton can use this micro-targeted strategy in the Democratic primary without much cost. Democratic voters embrace policies to combat sex-based discrimination. That commonly referenced “equal pay for equal work”? Just under 3 percent of Democrats oppose equal pay policies, according to the ANES data.
So as Clinton enters the final stretch against Sanders, it probably doesn’t hurt her — and actually may help her — to have some fresh, easy-to-spot evidence that sexism is alive, well, and directed her way.
But I would not expect a tweet — or smile — of thanks.