July 19, 2016 / 2:01 PM / a year ago

The Gender War Gets (Even) Uglier

Look at that face! Bleeding from her wherever. She’s shouting. There’s a special place in hell. Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.  We know where you live. More ugly women in America than attractive women. She’s not doing the job. The woman’s card...

A voter fills out her ballot to vote in the Super Tuesday election at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia March 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, journalists were blamed for being the purveyors of sexist comments. This year, you couldn’t blame the media. Amped-up rhetoric and bristling anti-woman tweets have come directly from the candidates, their surrogates and their supporters - from across the political spectrum.

The 2016 election battle has turned into an epic gender war. The targets included two presidential candidates, Clinton and Carly Fiorina; a Republican candidate’s wife, Heidi Cruz; a once-sacrosanct Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly; and millennial women. (Clinton surrogates Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem rebuked young women voters supporting Bernie Sanders; Steinem later apologized.) As the race went on, Clinton supporters faced obscenity-filled attacks from fans of the U.S. senator from Vermont; as they left an event in East L.A. “Bernie bros” issued death threats to Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Roberta Lange over a delegate dispute.

For pure rage and ratings, Donald Trump has been the undisputed orchestrator of the soundtrack of Campaign 2016 - the master of what Farai Chideya, an author and senior writer for FiveThirtyEight, calls “soundbites that are tweetable and repeatable.”

The tone was set from the moment that Kelly asked Trump the opening question in the first GOP debate last August: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” Later in the primary season, Trump said women should be punished for having abortions, before conservative Republicans schooled him to modify his statement. His comment on Clinton playing “the woman’s card” wound up raising $2.4 million - for her campaign. Hillary’s comeback line - “if fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in” - became a staple of her events, with crowds shouting, “Deal me in!”

The stakes are high: Women vote and decide elections. A U.S. Census Bureau report shows that women are the demographic that candidates need on their side, given that they’re more likely than men to show up and vote. White women gave their votes to George W. Bush in 2004. Black women voters helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and propelled Hillary to this year’s primary victories in Southern states.

Both Clinton and Trump are disliked among large numbers of voters. In early June, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed about 58 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable impression of Trump; nearly half had negative views of Clinton. Later, another Reuters/Ipsos poll found that about 22.4 percent of likely voters would not pick either candidate.  Still, in the weeks ahead of the conventions, Clinton seemed to maintain a clear lead over her rival in national polls even after the June 12 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The killing, carried out by a shooter claiming allegiance to Islamic State, was expected by many to boost support for the pro-gun, anti-immigrant Trump; polls conducted immediately after the shooting reflected little more than a marginal bump for the Republican.

For women voters across the spectrum, the rhetoric is both intriguing and insulting.

“This campaign just keeps on giving,” says Susan J. Carroll, professor of political science at Rutgers University and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). “Donald Trump is such a wild card. He makes sexist comments no one else would make, and then he doubles down on them. He doesn’t apologize.  It doesn’t seem to hurt him.”

Carroll says the Trump campaign is “more interested in maximizing attraction to white, working-class males. The gender gap is larger than it usually is.”

That was evident as Trump collected victories during the primary season. ”I think Trump is very scary,“ Mariah Dobias, a 25-year-old cook voting in the Ohio primary, told Reuters. ”He says he is going to make America great, but he doesn’t say how he is going to do it besides alienating whole groups of people.”

“Trump embodies so many of the ways men undermine women every day: speaking over them, interrupting, telling them their ‘periods’ are going to get in the way of their work,” says Jessica Bennett, cultural columnist and author of “Feminist Fight Club,” a forthcoming book about gender and work. Meantime, she says, Clinton has emerged as “the poster child for unconscious bias toward powerful women. She’s unlikeable, untrustworthy, too shrill, too loud; no wait now, she’s speaking too softly and we can’t hear her - it’s like a parody, and there is an academic study to support the bias in nearly every point of attack. Every time Trump says something about her, you could rebut it with research.” Bennett says that women who advocate for themselves are liked less—and yet “to run for president, you have to self-promote. All these subtle double standards - they’ve become very clear to me in this race.”

Of course, Trump has enthusiastic female supporters, and many women have already voted for him - one high point was 59 percent of Republican women in the New York primary. In a March 2016 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 47 percent of Republican women primary voters said they couldn’t see themselves supporting Trump.  By late May, Reuters/Ipsos showed a 68 percent approval rating for Trump among Republican women. That supported a trend among Republican voters overall as Trump emerged as the party’s top candidate

“The vast majority of Republican women are moving to Trump,” says Republican strategist and pollster Kellyanne Conway. “Many of them are coming home [to the GOP.]”

Four groups of women voters that may be in play come November:

Uncertain Republicans and Independents

“If you’re a conservative woman and you look at Trump as someone with a penchant for derogatory comments, and a demagogue, what will you do?” asks Mindy Finn, a Republican strategist for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee who now heads Empowered Women, an organization connecting center-right woman. “Will you vote for Hillary? Will you sit out the election? Or will you hold your nose and vote for Donald Trump?”

Finn says data indicates that women generally make voting decisions later in the process than men. “I think we’re going to see that trend exacerbated in this election, especially in a campaign that’s really dirty and negative. People will go into the voting booth and decide among two candidates they may not like.”

Finn, who is in the #NeverTrump camp, believes that “the fight for the Republican women’s vote is on. Hillary has an opportunity to appeal to women upset by Trump. His machismo rhetoric, objectifying women. He doesn’t see women as equals.”

Carolyn Hostetler, a conservative voter from Tennessee who opposed Trump, told Reuters in March that she disliked “the way he has belittled women.”

Making a gender-based appeal to Republican women did work in one case. After Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Heidi Cruz and his supporters posted an unflattering photo of her next to a glam shot of Melania Trump, which Trump retweeted,Ted Cruz “made courting female voters the heart of his campaign in Wisconsin,” says Katie Glueck, a Politico reporter who covered the Texas senator.

Both Heidi Cruz (“an impressive person and excellent surrogate,” says Glueck) and Carly Fiorina campaigned actively throughout the state.  Cruz won Wisconsin, beating Trump by 48 percent to 35 percent among women Republican voters. (When Cruz later picked Fiorina as his running mate, a Slate article theorized that he made the choice as “Trump bait,” hoping the New Yorker would say something misogynistic and jeopardize his lead in the polls.) After losing the next races, Cruz dropped out on May 3.

“Gender will be very interesting and complicated in this election,” says FiveThirtyEight’s Chideya. “I interviewed moderate Republican women who were supporting [John] Kasich and [Jeb] Bush. The question on the right is [whether] Republican women could have huge influence over turnout. ... We’ll see erosion among Republican moderates, especially among women who have questions about Trump. They won’t vote for Hillary but they could stay home.”

Millennial Women

Young women captivated by the message and energy of Bernie Sanders’ campaign recoiled at comments they regarded as insulting: from Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (who said young women were complacent about abortion), former Secretary of State Albright (“there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,”) and feminist Steinem (who said young women were joining the Sanders campaign to be “where the boys are.”)

The numbers told the story: at one point, support for Sanders stood at 61 percent among 18-to-29-year-old women, to Clinton’s 28 percent, and those numbers remained fairly consistent throughout the primary campaign.

“Most of the college women I have spoken with support Bernie,” says Bennett, the author. “Those who don’t - and support Hillary - are almost bashful about it. Like it’s somehow embarrassing these days to say you support Hillary Clinton. And God forbid you say you’re supporting her because she’s a woman.”

It’s unlikely that Sanders’ millennial supporters will opt for Trump in November. Still, their reservations about Clinton could help her Republican rival if they choose to stay home instead.

Latina Power?

Trump’s campaign has been a double whammy for Hispanic women voters—anti-immigrant rhetoric plus misogyny.

Demographically, a growing Latino population has fueled anxieties among pro-Trump supporters. But that change has yet to produce a significant impact in presidential campaigns. Will Trump’s rhetoric turn out Latino voters?

“The average Latino voter is a 26-year-old millennial woman who cares about student debt, health care and the right to choose,” says Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino. “The average white voter is a 42-year-old woman. Women outvote male voters.”

Team Hillary

Never mind the gender gap—what about the enthusiasm gap? Even as Clinton amassed delegates in the primaries, her approval numbers slipped, partly due to Sanders’ continuing campaign and increasingly harsh attacks, as well as Trump’s laser-like focus on her.

Even those sympathetic to Clinton acknowledge that she’s not the best campaigner. “It doesn’t help that she is not the most naturally charismatic person,” says Bennett.

Beth Ann Day, a New York fundraiser for Clinton, says, “When you have access to her, you have a different impression of Hillary. She is so warm, personal, caring - it doesn’t show on a big stage. She’s a great leader.”

For Clinton supporters, Bennett says many express an atmosphere of intimidation on social media. “Bernie Bros are more vocal,” she says. “They tend to be younger, they tend to make better use of social media, and I think to some extent it drowns out the Hillary supporters. I know people who have stopped posting support for Hillary because of it. Not all of it is bad, but some of the rhetoric is indeed misogynistic. Some is simply mansplaining - more annoying than offensive.”

Bennett says she’s been invited to join secret Hillary support groups on Facebook. “The fact that Hillary supporters had to go underground was so strange. You almost have to be a bashful Hillary supporter.”

Those who have participated in private Facebook groups say that they’re not surprising, just a space to freely express support for Clinton without having to argue with critics in their feeds.  During the primaries, such groups provided a haven for male as well as female Hillary supporters. After Clinton’s June 7 wins gave her enough delegates to clinch the nomination, some of these members went public; one Clinton worker told Bennett of “a bunch of women” walking into a California Democratic HQ asking if it was now “safe” to volunteer.

If anything, the rhetoric is likely to get nastier in the run-up to the general election.

Trump has revived the ghosts of yesteryear with a focus on Bill Clinton’s behavior - reframed to resonate with a generation too young to remember the scandal over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The Republican candidate suggested the former president was a rapist and even raised an old conspiracy theory that Hillary was involved in the 1993 death Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide.

“What Trump is trying to do is define Bill Clinton for younger voters,” says Carroll. “The narrative is: Bill Clinton was an abuser and Hillary Clinton was an enabler. I don’t think younger women will make their decisions based on Bill Clinton. It’s noise and distraction.”

What it does, says Carroll, is move the Clinton campaign off-message. “Bill Clinton could be a powerful plus. Trump is turning Bill Clinton into a potential grenade.”

“There is a concern about a level of degrading discourse that no presidential candidate has ever faced,” Clinton fundraiser Day says about the anti-Clinton assault. “For [Clinton] as a grandmother, a mother - it will be difficult.”

Will women voters see another side to Trump? That may depend on how they regard the election. “I‘m not sure that the election this fall will be a referendum on Donald Trump,” Republican strategist Conway said on Meet the Press in May. “It could be a referendum on Hillary Clinton. It’s going to be easy for him to say, ‘Look, you’ve been in public life for 30 years, so if you want to improve the lot of women, where have you been?’”

Conway evokes the unorthodox and unpredictable nature of the 2016 campaign. “Who’s the insider and who’s the outsider?” she asks. This year, “that transcends gender and race.”

CAWP’s Carroll believes Trump will try to win women over. She says that his daughter Ivanka is “a great asset for him - a very poised, compelling businesswoman. [She] might help him with young independent voters.”

Ultimately, Carroll says, the campaign will emerge as a battle between two narratives. Trump’s is about the protective male leader. “He’s going to protect us, make America great, no one will mess with us.”

That sentiment seemed to be on the mind of one Trump supporter, Kathleen Douglas, a 65-year-old college professor from Winter Park, Florida. “He’s a little unpredictable, as we’ve seen,” she told Reuters. “He’s going to put world leaders on edge.”

Meantime, Clinton is “trying to win the narrative by saying he’s reckless,” says Carroll, “that he’s scary on the international scene.”

One question is whether Trump’s rhetoric against Clinton will backfire. A cautionary reminder is Barack Obama’s putdown of Clinton in the 2008 New Hampshire primary debate: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Women voters unhappy with the remark helped her win New Hampshire, where she took the female vote by 12 points over Obama.

“I’ve done a lot of focus groups with women, and they are feeling anxiety around the economy and national security,” says Republican strategist Finn.  “That’s how they’ll decide.”

Finn believes the one-on-one Clinton/Trump debates could prove decisive. “Trump will be coached and told to rein himself in,” says Finn. “[But] he will repeat things. In debates, when he feels threatened, he does whatever it takes to un-wound himself. He’s said that himself.”

At the end of a campaign characterized by nasty, vitriolic rhetoric, that could mean women voters may just have the last word.

Alexis Gelber, a former editor at Newsweek, teaches in the graduate journalism program at NYU.

This essay first appeared in “The American Voter,” a special election issue by Reuters. Click here to see the complete issue or download our tablet-friendly apps from iTunes (here) or Google Play (here)

About the Author

Edited by Arlene Getz and Leslie Adler

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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