In a matter of eight weeks, Hillary Clinton's support among female voters dropped a whopping 29 points, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters out this week. The question is: why?
Male and female voters have seen the same headlines about Clinton's now-infamous e-mail server, Clinton's dismissive did-I-wipe-it-with-a-tissue comment and, presumably, read at least some of the stories detailing of her e-mail correspondence with staff, aides and the aides of her husband. Still, it seems women -- particularly white women who tend to vote Democratic -- are particularly and suddenly disappointed.
In other words: Clinton is losing support fastest among people just like herself.
There are the usual, obvious hurdles. Clinton is the first woman to ever hold a front-runner slot in the race for the White House in either party, which means that in some ways, she represents something new on the American political landscape. Of course, nearly a quarter-century of national attention means that in other, very important ways, Clinton -- her personality, her policy ideas and even her political habits -- do not feel very new at all.
But that doesn't explain the most recent drop. In short: Clinton and her political problems aren't terribly easy to categorize or explain.
That's why The Fix checked in with two political scientists who research voter behavior and responses to female candidates. Both said the polling data and their own research suggests that this isn't a mirage; Clinton has real and important work to do among women voters. Women have been, after all, critical to every Democratic bid for the White House since 1980, when females began a long-running streaking of tilting in Democrats' favor.
Both pollsters caution that it is far too early to pronounce Clinton in serious trouble with women. But they did come up with a few explanations for Clinton's polling declines.
First, here's a quick look at the numbers. Note that after starting on almost equal ground with Democratic-leaning men and women in the May Washington Post-ABC News poll, Clinton's support began to split across gender lines in July. Clinton's support among women climbed into stratospheric and unrealistic territory, according to Jennifer Lawless, an American University political scientist and director of that school's Women and Politics Institute.
Today, she says, you are looking at the poll standing of a female candidate with serious competition.
Clinton has competition, real and potential
In the months that have followed that July poll, one of Clinton's competitors in the Democratic primary -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont -- has become better known. His positions have become more widely circulated, and coverage of his campaign has grown. And he might seem like a viable alternative to a larger group of people.
At the same time, rumors about another potential candidate, Vice President Biden, have been in heavy rotation. Both Sanders and Biden have well-documented levels of support among white Democratic-leaning voters and less among voters of color (though Biden does better than Sanders here). So this likely explains the differences between the way that white women and non-white women responded to polling questions about Clinton.
And Clinton still sits far ahead of both Sanders and Biden in most polls.
At the same time, as the first chart shows, the drops among men and women since May are actually pretty similar. But while men deserted her much more quickly (which is reflected in the July numbers), perhaps women just took a little longer to catch up -- or simply stood by the potential first female president for another month.
Do women expect more from Clinton?
Lawless says evidence that male and female candidates are treated differently by voters and the media is fading. She is working on a book right now about this pattern in the 2012 and 2014 congressional elections. Lawless and her co-author have a theory: Political partisanship has reached such heights that gender is almost moot. Those who are inclined to vote for a Democrat are going to support the Democrat in the general election, whether male or female. And the same is true of Republicans. That's true, Lawless said, even of men who register patently sexist views.
"That's why I think what we are seeing is just a kind of return to Earth for Clinton's standing with women," said Lawless. "It's part of the natural and expected ebb and flow."
But where Lawless sees a sort of naturally occurring election phenomenon, another expert -- Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University political scientist who studies voter behavior -- sees evidence that female voters might well harbor high -- if not higher -- expectations for Clinton than they do other candidates because of the potentially historic nature of her campaign.
Women candidates, including Clinton, must always walk a line between affirming or embodying "positive stereotypes" about women (such as greater empathy) without affirming those that have long been cited as reasons why women are less suitable for public office than men (such as weakness or heightened emotional responses to challenges). Female voters aren't immune to those ideas, but now have an added layer of high hopes, Panagopoulos said.
"We really have only scratched the surface on some issues and some groups, and how voters react to women candidates is probably one of those areas," said Panagopoulos. "But I am going to speculate here that one of the reasons that the kind of declines in female voter support that we are seeing with Clinton may be happening is that women are especially attentive to the Clinton candidacy."
With great hopes come great voter expectations. Clinton's e-mail server troubles might not only be a letdown but for many female voters conjure old and highly charged memories about Clinton, her husband and their shared and individual political pasts. That list includes Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, Benghazi and now the e-mail server matter, Panagopoulos said.
All hope is not lost
Both Panagopoulos and Lawless said voters should expect to see Clinton's campaign go hard after any female voters lost. Again, female voters of all races are critical to any winning Democratic campaign for the White House. Hence, Lawless said, Clinton has started apologizing for her e-mail server-related choices and claiming technological, rather than security-related incompetence. And, she's remained attentive to so-called women's issues.
From the looks of things, the Clinton campaign is already on the case.
On Thursday, Clinton talked about Republican front-runner Donald Trump "insulting women every chance he gets" during an Ohio campaign stop, and also talked about her experience, her e-mail server choices, her granddaughter and her age before, um, dancing on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
"If you vote for someone on the merits, one of my merits is that I am a woman," Clinton told DeGeneres. On Friday, Clinton told a crowd in Portsmouth, N.H., “I firmly believe what’s good for women is good for America.” And on Monday, Clinton's campaign speech in Decorah, Iowa, included similar themes.
Only time and a few primaries will show if any of it worked.