COLUMBUS, Ohio — Hillary Rodham Clinton is suffering a rapid erosion of support among Democratic women — the voters long presumed to be the bedrock in her bid to become the nation’s first female president.
The numbers in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll are an alarm siren: Where 71 percent of Democratic-leaning female voters said in July that they expected to vote for Clinton, only 42 percent do now, a drop of 29 percentage points in eight weeks.
The period since the last survey coincides with news that the FBI is looking into the security of e-mail sent over a private server Clinton used when she was secretary of state, as well as an intense media focus on her response to the controversy. The episode has raised questions about her judgment and revived memories of the scandals that plagued the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton, in the 1990s.
The steep decline among women, which is sharpest among whites, is the main force driving the poll’s overall numbers, which show support for Hillary Clinton falling from 63 percent in July to 42 percent now among Democratic-leaning voters. Her numbers among women have declined to the point where they are about even with her share among men.
As a result, Clinton’s once-commanding national lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running to her left, and Vice President Biden, who is considering joining the race, has been cut by two-thirds. Both men are now polling in the low 20s against her.
The poll suggests that the historic significance of Clinton’s campaign is being overtaken by other forces.
In the survey, Clinton received markedly higher support from nonwhite Democratic-leaning women, 60 percent of whom were behind her as their party’s nominee. By comparison, only 37 percent of white Democratic women said they would vote for her.
There was no statistically significant difference between the backing she drew from women older than 50 and her standing among younger women.
Clinton did not dispute the drop in support when asked about it Monday at a news conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “I’ve been in and around enough campaigns to know that there’s an ebb and flow,” she said. “Polls go up and down; people’s attention and decision-making changes over time. I feel very confident about where we are in the campaign and very committed to doing everything I can to make my case as effectively as possible to women and men, and I think that will be successful.”
The doubts many female voters now have about Clinton — and the deep reserves of loyalty she maintains among others — came out in conversations over the past week with more than two dozen women in Ohio and New Hampshire.
Those are states where Clinton had two of her biggest wins the last time she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 2008. The double-digit advantage she held among women carried her to victory in both states.
Maya Chenevert, a community-college student in Columbus, Ohio, who works as a nanny, recalled: “In 2008, I was only 13, but I was super excited about Hillary. I’m actually amazed that I’m not going to vote for her, because 13-year-old me would be so disappointed.”
Chenevert originally hoped that she would be casting her first vote in a presidential election for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). With Warren taking a pass on 2016, Chenevert now thinks that Sanders offers her the greatest hope of someday being able to afford the schooling it will take to achieve her dream of becoming a physician assistant.
Does she want to see a woman in the White House? “Of course. But I’d rather wait another eight, or 12, or 16 years for another woman to run,” Chenevert said. “I totally swayed my mom, who has liked Hillary since 2008. She was so excited about a woman. She still would love to see a woman, but she doesn’t think Hillary is the right woman.”
Clinton’s most loyal supporters, on the other hand, make the case that if a former secretary of state, senator and first lady cannot win, it will be a long time before any other woman has a realistic chance.
If not Clinton, “it says, ‘Not in my lifetime.’ That’s what it seems to me, for sure. She seems so competent,” said Ena Wilson, a retired teacher who lives near Cincinnati. At 88, Wilson can recall when abortion was illegal and unsafe, worries that Planned Parenthood is under siege, and is frustrated by the lingering pay disparity between women and men.
“I felt these issues. I’ve been fighting them all my life, and I can’t believe it sometimes that we haven’t made more progress than this,” she said.
Wilson worked at a phone bank for Clinton’s 2008 campaign, and she meets nearly every Friday at a coffee shop with six other women with whom she bonded during that experience. They are in their late 50s and older, and they call themselves Team Hillary. Last week, Wilson and two others drove more than 100 miles to see Clinton speak in Columbus.
Afterward, over lunch, they were still excited by what they had heard. “She said — and I believe it to my core — ‘I will fight for you,’ ” said Michele Mueller, 65, who made the trip with Wilson. “That’s what we want to hear.”
“It’s unfinished business,” added their friend Joyce Shrimplin, 69, a retired high school teacher. “What if she doesn’t make it this time? That’s why our generation of women are so fervent about it.”
On the stump, Sanders also appeals to women’s concerns, touting his support for abortion rights, equal pay, and paid family and medical leave.
“I hope they will hear it,” he said in a brief interview after a Labor Day campaign stop in Amherst, N.H. “I do understand there is a desire on the part of many women, perfectly understandable, to see a woman being elected president. And we all want to see that. We want to see women hold more political offices.
“But I also would hope that in these enormously difficult times, where it is absolutely imperative that we stand up to the billionaire class, bring our people together to fight for a progressive agenda, that all people — women — look at that candidate who has the record to do that,” added Sanders, who has a growing lead in New Hampshire polls.
At the Democratic barbecue where Sanders spoke in Amherst, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) made a pitch for Clinton. “I want to have my granddaughter Lilly there on Inauguration Day,” Stabenow said. “We will have made history, and we will have let our grandchildren know they can do anything — not because we said it, but because they saw it.”
Elise deMichael, a retiree from nearby Milford, N.H., who supports Sanders, was in the audience and agreed with Stabenow about how exciting it would be to see a woman inaugurated.
“But it’s got to be the right woman,” she said. “Hillary’s so divisive. It breaks my heart for her. I’m sorry she’s not likable. It’s going to happen. Did we ever think there was going to be a black president?”
Clinton has told reporters who ask about the e-mail controversy: “Nobody talks to me about it, other than you guys.”
But in the interviews with women in New Hampshire and Ohio, it came up again and again.
“Her judgment sometimes — the e-mail thing. There’s always a smoking gun,” said Vanessa Foley, a nurse from Milford who wore a Sanders sticker at the Amherst barbecue.
Kathy Lawson, a retired teacher, moved to New Hampshire from Maryland a decade ago to be near her grandchildren and was in the crowd at a Labor Day parade in Milford. She voted twice for Barack Obama but is now leaning toward a Republican, Ohio Gov. John Kasich — although “if Joe Biden gets in, I’m in for him.”
She is already certain how she will not vote.
“Not Hillary,” she said. “I don’t think she’s honest. I just don’t want the drama we had for eight years, and we’ve already seen it.”
Others argue that Clinton’s weakness is on the issues.
It took Columbus nurse Jen Kanagy 18 years to pay off her student loans. Now she worries about whether she will be able to afford to send her 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, to college.
She read about Clinton’s $350 billion college-affordability plan, which would allow those repaying loans to refinance their outstanding debt at lower rates, saving an average of $2,000 over a 10-year repayment period.
“Her college plan was going to give people $17 a month,” Kanagy said. “What is that? That’s not even a pizza.”
Sanders, on the other hand, vows to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, and Kanagy has become so enthusiastic that she and Olivia went to Madison, Wis., to see him speak. “It was like tailgating at a rock concert,” she said. “I see this happening. I think people are waking up.”
Clinton is holding several weeks of rallies billed as “Women for Hillary,” but the message she is delivering speaks to broad concerns, focusing heavily on the economic benefits of equal pay, better child care and reproductive rights.
With this month marking the 20th anniversary of a speech that then-first lady Clinton gave in Beijing declaring that “women’s rights are human rights,” the campaign is releasing daily videos with clips from the address, which electrified the audience at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women.
“Her dedication to women really resonates with me, especially when it comes to equal pay and paid leave. I think it’s embarrassing that we don’t have equal pay. I believe she is going to fix it,” said Miranda Ross, 18, a member of the Ohio State University Democrats, who worked for Obama in 2012 and expects to vote for Clinton.
“I feel like her campaign is just getting started,” added her friend Caroline Gonzalez, 20.
Some women who find themselves unable to support Clinton insist that they continue to respect and appreciate her decades of work on the causes they share.
One of them is Sylvia Gale, 66, a former New Hampshire state legislator, who stood outside an AFL-CIO Labor Day breakfast in Manchester.
“Hillary has been a strident advocate for women’s rights for many years, and I will not speak against her,” Gale said.
But she held a handmade sign that said “Feminists for Bernie.”
“I’ve never been ashamed to call myself a feminist,” Gale said. “But because Hillary has gotten a lot of coverage in the mainstream and other media as being the women’s candidate, I guess I just wanted to say: Not for all of us.”
Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill in Washington and Anne Gearan in Cedar Falls, Iowa, contributed to this report.