The disconnect between the national political conversation and what voters are talking about in the early caucus and primary states is a constant story line in this political season. National polls show one thing— Romney in fourth place —and state polls show another—Romney leading in Iowa and New Hampshire. The political press reports on Clinton’s tipping habits in restaurants, and local voters don’t care. So, after Hillary Clinton was accused of playing the gender card to distract from her poor performance in the last debate, I was curious about how Iowa women were viewing the dust-up during my recent trip there. Women overwhelmingly favor Clinton in polls in the state. They’re also the ones who give her the edge over her rivals when polls measure voters who say they’ve picked their candidate and won’t change their mind.
The first thing I noticed talking to women who both support Hillary and those who are undecided is that a general conversation about the presidential race pretty quickly gets to gender. Janet Almmey in the Amana Colonies explained why she thought Clinton aced the debates by saying, “It was the woman in her that won. Men have some abilities. Women have others, and she could just rise above them all.” Pam Reynolds of Cedar Rapids said gender was an “overblown issue,” but she listed among the reasons she was supporting Clinton that a win for her would bring America in line “with other progressive nations that have had women leaders.”
Pollster Ann Selzer, whose firm administers the influential Des Moines Register survey, told me it was possible that some women would bond with Clinton as they heard about the other candidates’ ganging up on her. They would think about their own experiences of being a woman in a man’s world. That was the case for Ann Hutchens, who supported John Edwards in 2004 but has narrowed her choice down to Clinton and Bill Richardson. Her primary concern is the safety of her retirement benefits, but she found herself yelling at the television when she saw a recap of the Philadelphia debate. “They were so mean and nasty to Hillary,” she said outside of the Oelwein middle school. “It made me like her even more.”
Of the more than a dozen women I talked to, only one had actually seen the debate—a Clinton campaign county chairwoman who declared it obvious that the men found it easier to attack a woman than a man. The other women, whether they were supporting Clinton or not, seemed to take it as an article of faith that the men had ganged up on her, as Seltzer suggested. Of the men and women who dislike Clinton, no one mentioned that she’d inappropriately used her gender. The nearly universal complaint was that she was too calculating and dishonest, which was actually the argument put forward by those men at the Philadelphia debate.
In the national political conversation, the Clinton team is in a bad fix over the gender issue. Clinton has now had to insist several times that she didn’t claim she was attacked because she was a woman. From now until Election Day, the campaign will be accused of unfairly exploiting the issue. The early plausible attempts to refute the charge fell apart when campaign surrogates Geraldine Ferraro and Eleanor Smeal made the sloppy and nutty claim that the debate resembled the Anita Hill hearings. This causes tactical problems for the Clinton team, because there were strategic benefits in the national spin war to pushing the idea of a pile-on that had nothing to do with wooing women. The campaign wanted to paint Clinton’s opponents as mindless attackers to both delegitimize their specific claims against her and diminish their most positive attribute—particularly in Obama’s case—which is their hopeful optimism.
In Iowa though, the campaign has no problem accentuating Clinton’s gender. She is quick to say at every event that she’s not running merely as a woman, which of course serves to put the issue front and center. She tells audiences she hears parents whisper to their daughters at campaign events that they, too, can do anything they want when they grow up. The campaign has started keeping track of women who say they were born when women couldn’t vote and now hope to live to see one in the White House. The message doesn’t just come from the candidate. At one event, the campaign prepared handmade signs that read, “I can be president” to hand to young girls. Introducing Clinton in the Amana Colonies last week, former Gov. Tom Vilsack said, “to the men in this audience, think about a young girl who is important in your life. I want you to think about the day after the election, look at that young girl, and say for the first time in American history: Every opportunity is available to her.” Including getting piled on.