Clinton Had a Hillary Problem

Was Hillary Clinton the woman with the best odds of winning a presidential election? Some certainly seem to think so. The Guardian ran a story a few days prior to the election titled, “Did it have to be Hillary Clinton for president? Yes. Here’s why.” That view has an uncomfortable implication—namely that no other woman could have beaten Donald Trump. MSNBC’s Jonathan Alter came to the same conclusion when he claimed that Trump won “because he's a testosterone candidate and men weren't ready for a woman president.”

But that seems misguided. Clinton’s supporters were right that she was well qualified for the presidency, even without comparison to her exceedingly unfit opponent. But one must not conflate suitability for the job with strength as a candidate. As John Dickerson, the host of CBS's “Face the Nation,” put it, Clinton’s skills are much better suited for governing than for running for office. “I think she's just not a very good campaigner,” he said in an interview a few months ago. Even Clinton herself has admitted as much. In a primary debate in March, when asked why voters do not see her as honest and trustworthy, Clinton replied, “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.” Whether her fans like it or not, Clinton did have a Hillary problem.

Many hoped that Clinton would become America’s first woman president. Now that she is not, it is important that we remember why, so that other qualified women in the future are not unintentionally shut out of the highest office in the land. I am worried that if Clinton is incorrectly viewed as an exceptional presidential nominee, Democratic primary voters, come January 2020, may feel that it is too risky to nominate a woman again, based on the mistaken belief that the best possible female candidate had already run—and lost—four years earlier. They may reason that it is somehow safer to nominate a man, perpetuating the endless wait for a woman president. This is why the idea of “Clinton exceptionalism” must be rejected.

In what ways did Clinton fall short as a campaigner? As she has alluded to herself, she has neither the retail politics skills of her husband, nor the oratory gifts of Obama. But there are also the factors of likability and perceived honesty. A survey from March 2008, during that year’s primary elections, found that 63 percent saw Obama as honest and trustworthy, while only 44 percent said the same of Clinton.

It is true that women who run for political office face severe challenges that men do not, given the pervasiveness of sexism in so many dimensions of our everyday lives. There is often a different standard, a higher bar, that female candidates must clear. Clinton’s figures are certainly worse because of her gender alone, but she does not stack up well even against other woman politicians. As Secretary of State, while having high job approval, Clinton often still had higher unfavorability ratings than her predecessor Condoleezza Rice.

A look at 43 polls conducted from 2001 to 2008, while she was a senator from New York, shows that Clinton had an average favorable/unfavorable spread of just 5 percent—in other words, the share of voters who viewed her favorably, as opposed to unfavorably, was only 5 percentage points larger. By contrast, Kirsten Gillibrand, who took over Clinton’s seat in the Senate, has had a favorable/unfavorable spread of around 21 percent since taking office, based on 45 different polls.

Even as First Lady, Clinton seemed to struggle more with public perception than what is typical. Shortly after her husband’s inauguration, in the spring of 1993, Gallup found that Clinton had a 61/27 favorable/unfavorable rating. When Gallup polled Michelle Obama’s favorability in the spring of 2009, her rating, by contrast, was 72/17.

Running for office is different from running a government. Sadly, as witnessed on November 8, the candidate best suited to do the job does not necessarily get picked. But there is a silver lining: Since Clinton, despite not being good at campaigning, lost only narrowly to Trump, the odds look very promising of shattering that highest glass ceiling in four years’ time, if the Democrats nominate a woman who both has the qualifications and the skills to run a stronger campaign.

In four years, the liberals’ top priority will obviously be to dethrone Trump, regardless of whom is chosen to lead the charge against him. At the same time, would it not be the perfect celebration of the 19th Amendment’s 100th anniversary to have the first woman president replace a sexist, misogynistic bigot in the White House?

Simon Hedlin is a student at Harvard Law School. Follow him on Twitter @simonhedlin.