Why isn’t Hillary Clinton doing better with women voters?

Editor’s Note: Martha Pease is CEO of DemandWerks, a firm that advises companies on marketing strategy, and co-author of a new book, “Think Round.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Martha Pease: Hillary Clinton losing support among women voters; Trump leading among GOP women

Pease: What happened to the idea that women would flock behind Clinton's banner to make history?

CNN  — 

It’s been a tough year for political prognosticators. First, almost all of them told us that Donald Trump’s candidacy would be collapsing by now. Instead, the latest CNN/ORC poll shows that he is ahead of his closest Republican rival by 2-to-1.

Now, one begins to wonder whether the commentariat is also dead wrong about women voters.

Martha Pease

Take the most obvious case: Hillary Clinton. Conventional wisdom has held that she would be virtually bullet-proof among a vast number of women who fervently want the first African-American president to be succeeded by the first female president. Just as important, Clinton has devoted much of her professional life to championing the causes of women and children.

In a country where women’s pay remains grossly unequal and big corporations are still horribly slow in appointing more women to boards, she is widely seen as the best hope for breaking up the old boys’ network.

Yet, in an odd political season, here is one of the greatest oddities: According to an array of national polls over the past month, many women voters have been drifting away from Hillary. In June, for example, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 51% of white women voters who have at least a college degree had a favorable view of Hillary, while only 38% were negative.

The same poll a month later found those numbers reversed: 47% negative, 43% positive. Among all voters, her favorability now stands at the lowest point in 14 years, even lower than in her struggles in the 2008 campaign. She is the one hemorrhaging support, not Trump.

Indeed, Trump’s continuing strength raises questions about women voters, too. It was widely assumed after the first GOP debate and the furor it caused that Mr. Misogynist would drive women from his camp. It is clear that Trump has alienated millions of women with his sexist behavior and has high disapproval ratings with women, but isn’t it surprising that in that new CNN/ORC poll, he not only leads the GOP field among Republican men but also among Republican women?

To be sure, Hillary maintains a much stronger following among women than does Trump, with 52% of women viewing her favorably in the latest CNN/ORC poll. That survey found that she would beat Trump in a general election by 6 points on the strength of her support among women voters, with 60% backing her while 53% of men would support Trump.

Still, the larger point is that Hillary is not doing as well among women voters as would have been expected a month ago and Trump is surviving among Republican women better than expected. Since women will provide well over half the vote in 2016, decoding how they make decisions is critical to both sides.

So, what is going on among women voters? What seems clear is that Hillary is trying to appeal to women in an old-fashioned way that doesn’t work as well as it once did. Her team apparently thinks that by aggressively selling hard facts, advancing policies or giving her version of the email controversy, Hillary’s campaign will have women flocking to her banner.

A variety of studies have shown that women make decisions differently than men and perhaps are better at it. Do they tend to want to hear a case without a hard sell, offering full and open disclosure and then be left to decide for themselves what to do? That is precisely the opposite direction from which Clinton has headed in the past month, especially in her handling of the email story. Almost everyone is naturally mystified by aspects of that story, but women in particular may want a candidate to treat them with intellectual honesty.

Clinton’s eroding favor with women may also be tied up in their investment in her as standard bearer. Women I talk with of both parties definitely want to be a driving force in electing the first woman to the White House, but they also want the “right” woman – not a politician who happens to be a woman. A recent Quinnipiac poll showing that 57% of all voters believe that she is not honest and trustworthy, and a Fox poll finding that 58% think she is lying about the emails, should be setting off alarm bells at Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn.

Trump, for all his many faults, is playing a savvier game: he understands that women voters are supporting non-traditional candidates and not looking for another politician with new plays in an old game; many may want a president who will change the game itself.

As for Trump’s boorishness, many women have become so accustomed to the way that men look at them that they have learned to take it in stride. At least Trump says it out loud, far better than men who swan around saying pretty things, but in the locker room toss around deeply offensive banter.

It probably helps Trump, too, that he clearly values and supports women who are classy, independent and highly intelligent – a point not lost on Maureen Dowd in a column in the New York Times. Trump’s Wharton-educated, 33-year-old daughter, Ivanka, has already independently built enterprises worth over $250 million. His sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, is a well-respected Circuit Court judge. Just wait until the elegance and smarts of Trump’s female entourage are unleashed on the electorate and media.

As bizarre as it may seem, Hillary Clinton might take a page from his book: Many women find it refreshing when they are told a straight story and are left to draw their own conclusions. “Here I am. I have nothing to hide. It’s up to you to decide if you like me or not.”

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