For months, Trump has made a play for these supporters by attacking Clinton’s feminist bona fides. To do that, he has focused largely on her husband. Bill was famously involved in a White House sex scandal and has also been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Trump has been hammering the point that those allegations make Bill Clinton an “abuser” and Hillary an “unbelievably nasty, mean enabler.” He posted a video to his Instagram account in which two of Clinton’s accusers detail their allegations. Then a voice comes in over a video of a laughing Hillary, asking, “Is Hillary really protecting women?”
It might seem like a smart move. Young women are more likely to identify as feminists than they were in the ’90s, and are more sensitive to accusations of sexual violence. But young female voters (and, one imagines, young male ones) are also more sensitive to sexism generally — including that directed at Hillary. While they may not be as familiar with the accusations against Bill, many of them bristle at the idea that Hillary is responsible for his behavior.
“For me, what it boils down to is the fact that Bill Clinton himself was never convicted of anything, rightly or wrongly,” said Ruth Kelly, a 28-year-old doctoral student at the University of Southern California and a Clinton supporter. “So the idea that his wife should face consequences that he himself did not is galling.”
Yaffa Fredrick, a 27-year-old editor of World Policy Journal based in New York, agrees. (Disclosure: I’m friendly with Fredrick and have written for her publication.) “Hillary is not Bill,” she said. “If Hillary were the one accused of multiple accounts of sexual harassment, then I think Trump would have every right to go after her. But she isn’t. She was perhaps too quiet on the subject at the time, but she wasn’t the alleged criminal.”
Fredrick, who supports Clinton largely because she wants to elect anyone but Trump, says she believes the women who accused Bill of sexual harassment and assault, and that the accusations would likely look very different in 2016 than in the ’90s. “Today, I don’t think that Hillary or the left at large would so systemically protect or defend a man with multiple accusations of harassment lodged against him,” she said. But what’s also true is that women of her generation don’t think women are responsible for the poor or predatory choices men make. “Bill is not running for office; Hillary is,” Fredrick said, “and I don’t think she should be judged primarily on the misdeeds of her husband.”
Many under-30 voters I spoke with didn’t know the details of the sexual assault and harassment accusations. While they knew about the Monica Lewinsky scandal and were familiar with the name Paula Jones, they were generally less familiar with the accusations of sexual assault made by Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey. (Both Jones’s and Willey’s claims contained factual inaccuracies; Broaddrick’s rape accusation, though, has not been definitively disproved).
For older voters, these stories are old news. And Hillary’s favorability ratings actually increased when her husband’s affair with Lewinsky was making headlines, and female voters in particular seem to just feel sorry for her when the story comes up again, including when the story is about sexual assault claims.
Even for voters who were in elementary school during Bill Clinton’s presidency, it’s not clear that more information about the accusations against him will change the game. The millennial women I spoke with said that while they trust women who say they were assaulted, they also hold men allegedly doing the assaulting, not their wives, responsible.
“I do believe the women because it is my default to trust women and survivors,” said Dieneke van der Zalm, a 28-year-old health-care organizer in Missouri. But, she said, “sexual harassment and sexual assault are wrong, but they are the responsibility of the perpetrator, not their loved ones or anyone else.”
Which is perhaps why Trump is now targeting Clinton’s feminism from a different angle: her supposed lack of commitment to women overseas and her indifference to the problems women would face in the United States if more immigrants are allowed in (never mind that many of these immigrants would presumably be women and that all of them would be trying to leave those countries hostile to women’s rights). Are millennial voters concerned about women’s rights abroad likely to vote for Trump because of Hillary Clinton’s alleged lack of commitment to women? Is it possible voters concerned about international women’s rights are also so hostile to immigration they would want to ban Muslims and build a wall across our Southern border?
Probably not. But if he’s trying to score points with millennials, going after Clinton’s own record — even if he’s falsifying much of it — is a marginally more effective strategy than implying she’s a rape enabler. Unfortunately for Trump, marginal isn’t going to bridge a double-digit gap.