Sexism Did Not Cost Hillary the Election
It’s June 2017, and many Democrats (and members of the media) are still trying to figure out how Hillary Clinton managed to lose the 2016 election to Donald Trump. The consensus, at least for the past seven months, has been that Jim Comey and the Russians were responsible. Precious little empirical evidence supports the view the former FBI director’s stumbling on-again, off-again handling of the bureau’s investigation swung actual votes last November. As of now, at least, there’s even less evidence that any Russian meddling played a role.
Thanks to a glowing profile of Hillary Clinton in New York Magazine, a new culprit has been identified: sexism. Author Rebecca Traister wastes no time saddling up one of Democrats’ favorite hobby horses:
But postmortems offering rational explanations for how a pussy-grabbing goblin managed to gain the White House over an experienced woman have mostly glossed over one of the well-worn dynamics in play: A competent woman losing a job to an incompetent man is not an anomalous Election Day surprise; it is Tuesday in America….
“I think a lot of people didn’t believe those of us who were yelling that it was hard to elect a woman president,” says Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist who was the director of communications outreach for the Clinton campaign. “The fact that that woman lost to the least qualified human being on the planet really kind of drove it home.”
The frustration of the author and Clinton’s campaign staff is obvious, and understandable. It has a superficial logic to it: What else but deep-seated bigotry could explain how a “pussy-grabbing goblin” who is the “least qualified human being on the planet” beat such a superbly qualified woman for the White House?
But the numbers don’t bear out the claim that sexism is to blame for Clinton’s loss.
In 1937, Gallup first asked voters whether they would or would not vote for a candidate for president based on certain characteristics. That year, only 33 percent of respondents said they would be willing to vote for a woman for president, which was far below the other two characteristics polled (Jew, 46 percent; Catholic, 60 percent).
To be sure, not every person will confess his or her prejudices to a stranger. Nonetheless, over the years, political scientists have found that such poll questions generally do correlate with the electorate’s tolerance levels. So fast-forward nearly eight decades, and 92 percent of Americans said they would vote for a woman for president, tied for second best among the 11 characteristics polled.
Sexism was actually the second line of defense in the identity politics invoked by Clinton apologists. The first was racism. Even before the election was decided, left-leaning Salon magazine was preparing her excuses in pieces such as “Fear of a woman president: How the white backlash against Obama fueled Hillary hate and the rise of Trump.”
When the votes were counted, CNN commentator—and former Obama administration official—Van Jones said emotionally on-air, “This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president, in part.”
The story line was never simpatico with President Obama’s own views: He was on record as saying he thought if allowed by the Constitution to run again, he could win a third term. Nor did it align with the election results. Clinton lost states that Obama carried because he did better with white voters than she did—and he was confident he could have done it again. Simply put, there’s little reason to believe Hillary Clinton’s gender impacted her more negatively than Barack Obama’s skin color.
A closer look at the results from November amplify the point. Donald Trump ran just a single point better among men nationally in 2016 (53 percent) than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Conversely, Hillary Clinton ran a single point worse among women nationally in 2016 (54 percent) than Barack Obama did in 2012. But given that Clinton won the national popular vote by 3 million votes, those numbers aren’t terribly helpful in illuminating why she lost the election.
Let’s look more closely at the four states that mattered most in November: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida.
In the first three, Trump increased the Republican vote share among males from the 2012 election (+3 in Wisconsin, +5 in Michigan, +6 in Pennsylvania), while Clinton lost male vote share in all three states (-7 in Wisconsin, -9 in Michigan, -8 in Pennsylvania).
Even if you attribute that shift mostly or entirely to sexism, which is implausible, Clinton also lost female vote share in all three states (-4 in Wisconsin, -4 in Michigan, -1 in Pennsylvania) versus the previous election. Had she merely been able to win the same percentage of the female vote that Obama won in 2012, she would have won Wisconsin and Michigan.
Florida was a similar story. Trump won the exact same share of the vote among males and females as Mitt Romney did in 2012, 53 and 46 percent, respectively. But Clinton lost three points among both men and women in the Sunshine State. Again, had she just retained the same level of support among women in Florida as Obama received in 2012, she would have won the state by some 35,000 votes.
Flip Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida on the 2016 Electoral Map and Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump, 287 to 251. Those claiming sexism as an excuse for Hillary’s loss have to grapple with this fact: The reason she didn’t win isn’t because not enough men voted for her, it’s because not enough women did.
A coda to the argument against sexism as a contributing factor: In late January, a group of academics put on a live gender-bending re-enactment of portions of the 2016 debates, titled “Her Opponent.” Donald Trump was played by a woman, given the name Brenda King, and Hillary Clinton was played on stage by a man named Jonathan Gordon. The actors spent weeks memorizing the debate transcripts and perfecting the candidates’ exact body movements, facial expressions and speech patterns.
Members of the audience were interviewed before and after the performance. The producers of “Her Opponent” assumed the experiment in gender-inversion would confirm a sexist double standard. In other words, that a woman would never have gotten away with the aggressive, bullying posture and tone that Trump regularly took in the debates. But that’s not what they found.
Instead, members of the audience were drawn to the female character playing Trump as being “strong” and “authentic.” Said one woman, “When she [the female Trump character] was attacking, I had so much respect for her and her level of confidence.”
Conversely, the male character playing Clinton came off as inauthentic and timid. One woman who was a Clinton supporter said of Jonathan Gordon’s character, “I felt that he was weak and I felt that I didn’t really like him.”
Joe Salvatore, one of the producers of “Her Opponent,” explained the crowd’s reaction this way:
We heard a lot of “now I understand how this happened”—meaning how Trump won the election. People got upset. There was a guy two rows in front of me who was literally holding his head in his hands, and the person with him was rubbing his back. The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman—that was a theme. One person said, “I’m just so struck by how precise Trump’s technique is.” Another—a musical theater composer, actually—said that Trump created “hummable lyrics,” while Clinton talked a lot, and everything she said was true and factual, but there was no “hook” to it.
The Democrats’ search for answers as to how Hillary Clinton could lose to someone like Donald Trump is understandable. (There are 15 competent, experienced Republicans who are still asking themselves a version of that same question.) Plenty of factors played a role in Clinton’s loss, but there’s little evidence that sexism was one of them. Ultimately, she proved a lackluster candidate with an inferior message who failed to connect with voters in the states that mattered most.