Does Hillary Have a Women Problem?

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Hillary Clinton Discusses Economic Plan At New Hampshire Campaign Events
Hillary Clinton speaks during a town hall event at Dover City Hall, July 16, 2015. Photo: Darren McCollester/2015 Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is losing her own demographic: a new NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll shows that 34 percent of white women have a positive impression of the Democratic front-runner, while 53 percent have a negative impression. That is a large gap, and one that has yawned widely of late. In June, Clinton’s favorability ratings among white women were about even.

There’s been some hand-wringing about the poll from Democrats, given broader concerns about Clinton’s likability — stoked by the somewhat unlikely ascent of Bernie Sanders in the primary polls and the media circus over Clinton’s email practices while secretary of State. That same NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton with a 44 percent positive and 44 percent negative overall rating in June. In July, those numbers shifted to 37 percent positive and 48 percent negative.

How much does it all matter? Well, the question of Clinton’s support among white women is an interesting one. She is not expected to pull in the same number of black voters as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, as the Journal notes. Therefore, in order to win, she needs to draw bigger numbers from other demographic groups, with white women seemingly a good one to target.

But the tidal force of polarization is pulling that slice of the electorate away from Clinton, not pushing it toward her — even if she does pick up some of the white women Obama lost. Since 1992, the proportion of white Americans who either identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party has fallen from 44 percent to 40 percent. The Republicans’ share has grown to 49 percent from 46 percent. And while women in general lean Democratic, white women continue to lean Republican, if less so than white men.  

Even so, slice-of-the-pie concerns seem both early and overblown. Democrats continue to have something of a built-in demographic advantage in the Electoral College. And Clinton’s success will lie not just in swaying women, but in firing up and getting out voters who tend to lean to the left anyway: black women, college-educated women, and single mothers among them.

Much more broadly, Clinton remains more popular than many of her Republican counterparts, and it is not clear that favorability alone means much, if anything, especially this early in the race. In general, favorability tends to be a favorite topic of the political press, but not of political scientists — voters tend to think positively of the candidate they want to vote for, rather than voting for the candidate they like. And as unlikable as the occasional poll might make her seem, as Obama himself so memorably put it, Clinton seems likable enough.

Does Hillary Have a Women Problem?