The first Democratic presidential debate for the 2016 election is almost upon us and cable news coverage has been parsing and pontificating and engaging in the usual punditry, especially on these questions -- exactly how will Hillary Clinton do in the debate and what can she say to start convincing those voters who are on the fence that she is the best Democrat for the job?
While writing, researching and editing my forthcoming book, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, I discovered a lot of things that surprised me about what women voters of all ages, backgrounds, and political persuasions were thinking about Hillary as a candidate, as well as a woman of a certain age and generation. Being a wonky political follower, I thought I had a sense about where certain writers would come out on Hillary. But the contributors to this anthology surprised me in a lot of ways.
So as we are all getting ready to watch the first official Democratic showdown, let me share with you three surprising things I discovered about how women voters view Hillary:
1. Hillary has to be smart and likable. I know, I know. You think we've had enough of the whole she's "likable enough" (in the infamous words of candidate Barack Obama) question. But for women candidates, recent research shows that the paired "issues" of likeability and authenticity are real in a way they aren't for men. So Hillary (whether pundits like it or not) has to somehow weave that into this presidential run. Maybe if media personalities stopped prefacing their interviews with Clinton with statements like the one tossed out by Savannah Guthrie on The TODAY Show, that voters "don't connect with you... and they might not like you...", we might be able to better focus on issues and who can best lead.
Hillary isn't the only powerful, high-profile woman who has suffered the consequences of the "L" word. Ann Romney, talking about her new memoir in The Washington Post, reflected on the "accusations of inauthenticity" directed her way during the 2012 presidential campaign (and she wasn't even running for office). For better or worse, incorporating personal likability with professional experience is something that women on the national political stage must figure out in order to win, at least until we, as voters, get over our apparent need for a woman candidate to be our BFF, something that the research also shows voters don't demand of men. (Can you say 'The Donald'?).
2. Some women still can't forgive Hillary for not leaving Bill. You'd think that if voters were still stewing over the woman in the blue dress, they'd hold it more against Bill Clinton than Hillary. Yet, as Bill has gone on to become an international statesman, and Monica Lewinsky has moved on to TED Talk fame, more women than I care to count say they aren't sure they can vote for Hillary because she didn't leave her marriage after her husband's affair came to light. "She only stayed because of her own personal ambition," they say. Or, "She knew if she left him, she couldn't pursue her own political career, and that's too calculating for me."
To that, I say, so what? People stay in complicated marriages for all sorts of reasons. And, when it comes to men, we don't seem to think cheating male politicians should get out of the business of politics. Like Mark "I was hiking the Old Appalachian Trail" Sanford (now a U.S. congressman) or Anthony "TwitPic" Weiner, who's not in elective office, but is back as a cable news political commentator. We've given so many male politicians a pass for marital infidelity, I'm still surprised that voters can't or won't give Hillary -- as the wronged spouse -- a pass for staying in her marriage, even if it was to further her own career ambitions. But it exists in a pretty big way for women across generations.
3. Millennials favor Hillary Clinton more than you think. Almost every week, there's a new poll claiming that the coveted bloc of Gen Y voters (aka "Millennials") are running away from Hillary Clinton as if she was a stranger in a dark alley. It's generally acknowledged that she needs to win over that group of voters to make her way to the White House. One thing that many pundits are ignoring is this -- she's most likely got more support there than they want to acknowledge.
The thing that many baby boomers and Gen Xers forget is that Millennials didn't live through the Bill Clinton years the way we did. They think Whitewater is a new kind of vodka, and they are more focused on Hillary's goals to do something about student debt and putting money back into the public education system, than they are with what older voters refer to as Hillary's "baggage." Millennials are more focused on the question often posed by Al Franken in his SNL days -- "How will your election as president affect me?"
To the extent that some Millennials think about the Hillary ambition question, it's a non-issue. They see complicated marriages in their own lives and their own families, and know you can't view a woman's professional abilities by the decision she makes about whether to stay in her marriage or not, and that it's more important to look at accomplishments, qualifications and policy positions. The thing that many in the media leave out when it comes to Millennial voters is this -- polling shows that they overwhelmingly want to support the Democratic candidate for president in 2016. So while some of the voters in that age group are fascinated with Bernie Sanders right now, if Hillary is the party's nominee, that's who they'll most likely get behind.
So as we tune in to the debate on Tuesday night, and we all get ready to sit in judgment of Hillary -- probably more than the any of the other candidates -- don't fall for the distractions that the moderators are bound to throw at her (as they did in the 2008 debates.) Let's get past the likability thing and her personal marital issues, and ask ourselves who is best positioned to lead and actually get things done in Washington starting in January 2107.
You can chime in on the CNN/Facebook Democratic presidential debate on Twitter on Tuesday night as a variety of the contributors to Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox will be live-tweeting their commentary and analysis. Just follow the hashtag #hillaryparadoxbook. Please join us!
Joanne Bamberger is an independent journalist and journalism entrepreneur who is also the author/editor of the forthcoming book "Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox" (Nov. 3, 2015)(an Amazon #1 Hot New Release, pre-publication). She is the founder and publisher of the The Broad Side and the principal of Broad Side Strategies, a media/strategic communications firm. You can find Joanne on Twitter at @jlcbamberger and on Facebook.