Hillary Trumps Carly: Gender at the Apex of American Politics

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

“I have great admiration for Hillary Clinton because I know what it takes in some small measure to do what she has done. She is obviously incredibly intelligent, focused, tough, determined, empathetic of all the tens of millions of people that she was trying to represent in her quest to become the first woman president of the United States. Her run for the presidency was historic. She was a great candidate. She has helped millions of women all over this country. Women of any political party owe a debt of gratitude to Hillary Clinton and I will bet that every woman up here agrees with me.” - Carly Fiorina

Gender, in all its permutations, is the central issue in the 2016 election. It is not inconceivable that for the first time in U.S. history, the general election will be a contest between two women, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.

This post assesses the Clinton-Fiorina match up against the backdrop of the gaping gender gap in American politics.

At the outset of the second GOP debate, Tom's son caught a glimpse of the candidates and said, "There's only one woman, really?" Peter’s young daughter had the identical reaction, observing that there was “only one girl up there.” She added: “And that’s crazy.” 

Indeed it is. In the words of Katha Pollitt:  

At this point in world history, it is embarrassing how backward the United States is. More than 70 women have been chosen to lead their nations, including in gender-conservative countries like Pakistan, Ireland, and the Philippines—and 22 nations have female leaders right now. What is the matter with us? Indeed, we score poorly on every measure of women in politics: not quite 20 percent in Congress (which places us 72nd internationally, between Kenya and Panama); 24 percent in state legislatures; only 17 mayors in the top 100 most populous cities; and only six governors out of 50.

As #HillaryMen, we are dismayed by the homogeneity in the presidential field: twenty men, two women, an embarrassing 10 to 1 ratio.

We are outraged by Donald Trump’s dismissive and demeaning comments about women, including his focus on Fiorina’s appearance. 

We have called on the media and commentariat to apologize to Hillary Clinton for their shameful and irresponsible coverage, rife with conservative talking points, laced with sexism.

We have been calling out gender bias from the fever swamps of anonymous trolls to the MSNBC airwaves where Morning Joe conducts daily Hillary-bashing sessions, to the New York Times and Maureen Dowd for engaging in a vicious vendetta against Hillary.

We are thankful that Bernie Sanders was explicit in his use of the word "sexism" to describe some of the criticism of Hillary.

We are not constrained by our own progressive leanings – both of us have taken heat from our peers on the left for defending Sarah Palin against dehumanizing attacks.

Dealing with gender in 2016 is like navigating a multi-dimensional maze. As fathers of daughters, we have a responsibility to get it right, to learn from the past, to push ourselves, to play a constructive role. As American men, we have a duty to right a historic wrong: a 44-0 shutout in presidential politics. 

Bringing about positive change requires a clear understanding of the problem.

First, the harsh global realities for women and girls illustrated through a handful of statistics that reveal the scope of the injustice:

  • One out of every three women will be a victim of violence in her lifetime.
  • Every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or on their way to school.
  • In some parts of the world, a girl is more likely to be raped than to learn how to read.
  • Femicide is the leading cause of on-the-job death for women.
  • Only about one third of countries around the world have laws in place to combat violence against women and in most of these countries the laws are not enforced.
  • From elementary and middle school teachers to computer programmers, American women are paid less than men in female-dominated, gender-balanced, and male-dominated occupations.
  • In Louisiana, the worst state in the U.S. for pay equity, women are paid just 66% of what men are paid.
  • Globally, women make up just 22% of parliamentarians.

With those grim stats in mind, let’s look at how gender factors into U.S. politics.

American women constitute more than half the entire U.S. voting population. They can scarcely be said to be a “demographic” in the electoral process – in many ways, women are the electoral process. Analysts who view women voters as a special interest are – how can we put this judiciously – unthinking.

According to the widely respected non-partisan Pew Research Center, 53 percent of women voters lean Democratic as opposed to only 36 percent who favor Republicans. For men, those numbers are dead even. In every single demographic category profiled by Pew, there’s a gender gap – that is to say, more women identify with the policies and ideals of the Democratic Party. And that gap is growing generationally; young women are especially more likely to vote for Democrats.

Within the Democratic primary electorate, women are the majority. You cannot win the Democratic nomination and completely lose women. Despite a media-induced softening in support, Hillary still maintains a healthy lead among Democratic women. As our friend Joan Walsh writes, “she still leads both Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders among women by about 20 points. This is supposed to be yet another development that dooms her 2016 campaign.”

More Joan Walsh:

Clinton only won the women’s vote narrowly in 2008, besting Barack Obama by just 2 percent. So by that comparison, she’s still doing fantastically well among women. Her 71 percent share of the Democratic women’s vote was always illusory; it reflected her unrivaled name recognition, Sanders’ relative obscurity, and the now-outdated assumption that Biden wouldn’t run.

Looking beyond the numbers, we ask ourselves how to approach the process of choosing a candidate.

We do not believe voters should support a political candidate just because she is a woman. We have always argued that we support Hillary Clinton not only because she is a woman but because of her unwavering commitment to public service, her progressive policies, and her unparalleled experience. Having long fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and battled to extend the American social contract, Hillary can lay claim to the mantle of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.

Gender matters in voting decisions but so do many other factors. Issues matter. Character matters. Policy matters. Judgment matters. Experience matters. And no, Mr. Trump, looks don't matter.

Faced with a hypothetical Clinton-Fiorina match up, on all counts, Carly Fiorina loses to Hillary Clinton.

At Huffington Post, Igor Bobic explains:

While Fiorina championed the cause of women at the debate, she hasn't done so where it matters most -- in her campaign platform.

The businesswoman has described equal pay bills, like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, as nothing more than "tokens" and "gestures" that do not help women advance in the workplace. Like many in the GOP, Fiorina has argued that women already have adequate laws at their disposal if they are truly discriminated against at work. 

She opposes changing federal law to require companies to provide paid maternity leave, a position that is at odds with the policies of virtually every developed country on Earth.  

"I'm not saying I oppose paid maternity leave. What I'm saying is I oppose the federal government mandating paid maternity leave to every company out there," she told CNN in August. 

Fiorina is pro-life, a position she underscored at Wednesday's debate by giving a harrowing and vivid description of the controversial Planned Parenthood sting videos. The veracity of her account, in which she said she saw "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain," was later called into question by Vox. 

During the debate, Fiorina also came out against putting a woman on the $10 bill, which the Treasury has said it will do to honor women's contributions to American history. While her rivals on the stage said they would like to see figures like American Red Cross founder Clara Barton or civil rights leader Rosa Parks on the bill, Fiorina again said the move was nothing more than a "gesture."

The twin problems with Fiorina are her personal views and those of the party she represents.

When Fiorina essentially advocates for the reinstatement of the Cold War, we know Hillary Clinton is the wiser choice for the safety and security of our daughters. When Fiorina embraces the radical positions of the GOP, she is supporting a platform that would set women’s rights back many generations. We do not want our daughters to grow up in a world dominated by the extreme right’s views on women.

We are strong Hillary Clinton advocates because we know what her election signifies. We have been appalled but not surprised by the institutional forces that have lined up to prevent her from breaking the final glass ceiling.

The gender barrier in national politics has barred American women from the White House for nearly a quarter millennium. It will not give way easily. Hillary will be subjected to even more aggressive attacks, more verbal assaults, and more of a double standard.

A classic example is the continued use by the media and commentariat of a discredited and dishonest poll alleging that she is seen by voters as a liar:

Back on August 29th, we deconstructed the Quinnipiac poll, looked at the internals and found that it was highly misleading. While Quinnipiac presented the poll as evidence that voters associated “liar” with Hillary, we demonstrated that it was Republican and Republican-leaning respondents to the Q-poll who linked Hillary to liar and other derogatory terms (including “bitch”). It is a vastly different thing for Republicans, parroting Fox news and talk radio, to hurl misogynistic insults at Hillary than for all voters to believe Hillary is a liar.

Just as the New York Times trumpeted a false and dangerous allegation that Hillary was the subject of a criminal investigation and generated a cascade of anti-Hillary coverage, the Q-poll has had the same effect. These are the proverbial eggs that can’t be uncracked, the genies that can’t be put back into the bottle. “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Even discussions of the gender gap itself are infused with gender-biased spin. In a recent story, Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake opined that “Hillary Clinton has big problems with male voters” and cites two recent polls from Iowa and New Hampshire that show a clear gender gap between Hillary and Bernie Sanders in those early voting states. Hillary is “getting swamped” among Democratic men, asserts Blake, and the accompanying graphic screams: “Hillary Clinton's huge gender gap.”

Catch that?

The gender gap in the 2016 Democratic primary is Hillary’s problem. Her inability to attract males (a rather unsubtle message from the boys at The Fix, the Post’s gossipy political hub) is yet another headline in a long line of stories whose narrative is always “bad news for Hillary.” Of course, political analysts who study numbers will understand immediately that the headline of this story could just as well have been: “Bernie Sanders’ female-voter problem.” If anything, the Post article is a reflection of the media’s headline-writing problem.

Yes, gender is the central issue in 2016. As it should be. It is time for America to own up to its problem and put a woman in the White House. Hillary Clinton is that woman. From the effusive praise we quoted at the top of this post, Carly Fiorina seems to agree.

[NOTE: We use the candidates' first names in our title following the lead of their official campaigns.]


Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.