Hillary can do what Barack could not: Winning women over to a progressive agenda

clinton-hillary-01-aIn the worst nightmare for progressives, Hillary Clinton will become president and be a tool of Wall Street and other entrenched interests. The flip view is that Clinton will bring about progressive transformation in ways that Barack Obama never could.

The real question is whether Hillary Clinton wants to lead women to the left in a way they never have been lead, or if she wants to repeatedly triangulate to the middle, as another Clinton previously did.

When Clinton and Obama ran against each another in 2008, the conventional demographic wisdom was that Clinton would bring with her the “women’s vote” and Obama would bring the African-American vote.These were not equal assets. There are two fundamental differences:

1.       There are far more women voters in the United States than African Americans. In the 2012 elections, over 70 million women voted compared to 17.8 million African-Americans. If Obama and Clinton had equal sway over their “core constituencies,” Clinton would bring four times as many voters to the table as Obama.

2.       In the 2012 presidential election, 93% of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama. Some people might assume that he received such strong support from the African-American community because he is black. While that is a factor, it is far from the sole determinant. The last Democrat to win the White House prior to Obama was Bill Clinton, who carried 84% of the African-American vote in 1996. In Congress, the Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus are virtually indistinguishable. The bottom line is that Obama had to do very little work to convince his core constituency of the wisdom of his positions on the issues.

In contrast, women as a group are not nearly as progressive as African-Americans. In 1996, 63% of women voted for Bill Clinton. In 2012, the percentage of women who supported Barack Obama was 55%.

Here are two statistics that are crucial to understand:

1.       Barack Obama only had the potential to raise African-American support for his candidacy 16% over the 84% that Bill Clinton received in 1996.

2.       Hillary Clinton has the potential to raise female support for her candidacy 45% over the 55% aggregate that Barack Obama received in 2012. In other words, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and truly connects with American women, she has the potential to create an enormous swing toward her candidacy, and potentially other Democrats in 2016.

There are three important factors that give credence to the contention that Hillary Clinton can have significant influence on women and move many undecided and perhaps Republicans to the Democratic column.

The first factor is based on a premise that is true for millions of American voters, both female and male. Many voters are disconnected from the political process and really do not have very well-formed views on current issues. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she has the potential to awaken millions of female voters because of the novelty of her candidacy. The previous undecided or apathetic will likely fall in line with the views that Clinton is presenting. If she hems and haws on issues such as she has done on TPP and nuclear negotiations with Iran, she will not move the political needle. But if she is true to her current statements in support of raising wages significantly and curbing the excesses of Wall Street, she may be successful in ensuring that “newly awakened” female voters will align themselves with a progressive agenda.

The second factor is that if Clinton can appeal to many of the values that are more important to women than men, she will help millions of women to better connect with a progressive agenda. Data shows that women have greater concerns than men about a variety of social issues including health care, education, and a social safety net. As liberated as many women and men have become, there are still more women than men in America who are primary care-givers for children. Nurturing is a manifestation of compassion and compassion that is central to a progressive agenda. If Hillary Clinton can adopt many of the compassionate policies of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, she can connect with women voters across the nation in a way that no previous presidential candidate has.

The third factor is that there is still considerable evidence that many women vote as a prominent male figure in their life, such as a husband or father, would tell them to do. The presence of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate will be a very liberating experience for many of these women. It could well be that the first step towards political independence that they take from a domineering male will be to vote for a woman, Hillary Clinton. If Clinton espouses a progressive agenda, this too will become part of the identity of newly-liberated female voters.

In summer 2015, polls indicate that Hillary Clinton will most likely win the Democratic presidential nomination and will then defeat whomever the Republicans put up to oppose her. But if she wins with a bland agenda, the significance of her victory will be largely muted. If she wins with a progressive agenda and can help millions of women to adopt a progressive agenda, she can truly be transformational.

She is not yet locked in her positions. She has time to take advantages that will accrue to her if she adopts more of a progressive agenda. While many progressives, including this author, are most impressed with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and the potential candidacy of Elizabeth Warren, it would still do us well to continue to encourage Hillary Clinton to move further to the left. It’s good policy and good politics.