Hillary Clinton made history this week as the first female presidential candidate ever nominated by a major political party in the United States.
Not surprisingly, Clinton and her campaign surrogates have emphasized the groundbreaking nature of her candidacy.
In a poignant moment during the Democratic convention on Tuesday, Clinton appeared via satellite after a video montage of all 44 prior U.S. presidents, all male, flashed across the screen. Viewers heard the sound of glass shattering as Clinton appeared. Standing next to a little girl, and addressing any little girls who might have stayed up late to watch her become the first female presidential nominee, Clinton said, “I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next.”
Such tributes to the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy have appeared frequently throughout her campaign. Yet will this approach help Clinton’s appeal?
My research suggests that this strategy will help Clinton with certain voting blocs, but it may not resonate with others – and may even hurt her with a few.
Like the campaign, the media has emphasized the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy. Yet it isn’t clear if this emphasis will be appealing to voters, even women.
Research suggests that reminding voters that a woman is the first of her gender to hold a public office may undermine her credibility by drawing attention away from her political positions and past accomplishments. Or, in contrast, such reminders may increase a female candidate’s appeal to voters by suggesting the transformative nature of her candidacy.
I have examined the causes of systematic differences in the political opinions of men and women. My recent work, including an article soon to be published in the journal Political Science and Politics, explores how men and women perceive female candidates differently when reminded that those candidates would be the first of their gender to serve in a political office.
This work suggests ways that female candidates may use their historic underrepresentation in political office to appeal to voters and expand their electoral support in tight races like the current presidential campaign. However, this work also indicates that the benefits of emphasizing the historical nature of a woman’s candidacy may not be equal for Republican and Democratic candidates.
Using history to appeal to voters
I conducted an experiment in which almost 600 subjects read a news article about a female state house representative running for governor. Half the subjects read a mock news article that gave a basic biography of the candidate. The other half read a similar article that included three additional sentences framing a potential win by the candidate as a historic first for women.
Framing the candidacy as a historic first resulted in an overall increase in participants’ willingness to vote for the candidate and their assessments of her favorability. However, these effects were limited to certain groups of voters. Women and African-Americans were as much as 20 percent more likely to vote for a candidate after being told she would be the first woman to become governor in the state. White men exhibited no such increase.
Party identification also influenced how the participants responded to reminders about the historic nature of a candidacy. Independent voters and Democrats evaluated the candidate presented as a historic first more positively. They also said that they would be more likely to vote for her. Among Republicans, there was no such effect.
Interestingly, this study also demonstrated that individuals most supportive of policies designed to improve gender equality responded positively to the historic framing. Those who are less educated, conservative and male were most likely to oppose such policies.
Emphasizing the historic nature of Clinton’s campaign is unlikely to increase her support with less educated, conservative or male voters. But doing so may offer Clinton a way to appeal to groups who may be inclined to vote for her but need an additional nudge to do so. This last group includes undecided women, minorities or progressive voters.
An important bloc: women
Female voters as a group are not very enthusiastic about Clinton’s opponent, Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Women are particularly valuable as they vote at greater rates than men. Emphasizing the historic nature of her candidacy could help Clinton win more votes from white women than her Republican opponent, a dynamic not seen in recent elections in which Republicans have carried the white female vote. In the last election, white women preferred Romney to Obama by a whopping 14 percentage points.
Additionally, the historic nature of her candidacy gives Clinton an opportunity to attract Bernie Sanders supporters who might not be drawn in by her policies or prior political experience. Many of these potential voters do not strongly identify with the Democratic Party. Ensuring that these voters turn out on Election Day will be a central focus of the Clinton campaign strategy through the fall.
However, emphasizing the historic nature of her nomination will not help her broaden her base on the right. Trump leads Clinton by 12 percentage points among male voters, and data suggest male voters will not respond positively to these historic appeals.
In addition, this strategy may not position Clinton well to attract those who favored other Republican candidates, including Senator Ted Cruz, over Trump in the primary. These voters tend to be male, conservative and older – all groups that do not respond positively to historic appeals. It is possible that such a strategy may even prove off-putting to “Never Trump” voters or other Republicans unhappy with Trump’s nomination.
Republicans less interested in ‘firsts’
Of course, Clinton is not the only woman running for office in 2016. Yet Democrats like Clinton may find more utility in emphasizing the historic nature of their potential victories than Republican candidates. The groups predisposed to respond positively to these appeals tend to favor the Democratic Party. This may help explain why female Republican candidates, including Carly Fiorina, appear more hesitant to emphasize their gender during campaigns.
This partisan distinction has important long-term implications for campaign strategy in the 23 states that have yet to have a female executive. For instance, a woman governor has never been elected in Virginia, Missouri, Ohio or Florida.
In Missouri this year, House Speaker Catherine Hanaway finds herself in a tight four-way primary race for the gubernatorial Republic nomination. The data presented above suggest that she would be less likely to benefit from emphasizing the historical nature of her candidacy than would a female Democrat running for the same office.
As the Clinton campaign transitions from the primary to the general election, voters will continue to be reminded of the historic nature of her candidacy. Even if the Clinton campaign chooses to deemphasize the groundbreaking nature of her run, the media is unlikely to drop the theme.
That’s a reality that has both real electoral benefits and some significant perils for her campaign.