What Clinton's loss says about women in politics

Victories for women of color in Election 2016
Victories for women of color in Election 2016

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Story highlights

  • Clinton underperformed Barack Obama among women
  • Trump actually won 62% of white non-college educated women

Washington (CNN)Hillary Clinton came so close to winning the White House that she had planned to deliver her victory speech beneath a symbolic glass ceiling.

It was intended to be a night that would celebrate a historic first -- serving as a high point in a toxic election cycle.
    The surge in female voters that Clinton's campaign hoped for didn't materialize. Clinton never even came to the microphone beneath that ceiling that she had hoped would symbolize a historic milestone, instead calling Donald Trump to concede.
    According to early exit polls, Clinton underperformed Barack Obama among women. Turnout among women was 1 point higher than in 2012, but Clinton only got the support of 54% of women -- compared to Obama's 55%.
    Trump actually won 62% of white non-college educated women to Clinton's 34%. Clinton won white college educated women 51% to Trump's 45%, according to those same polls.
    Clinton led among independent women but only by a 4-point margin.
    It was a stunning conclusion to a race where the first female nominee of a major party was matched with a candidate who has made the most sexist, misogynistic comments of any nominee to run for president in recent memory.
    Women typically make up 52 to 53% of the electorate in presidential years, but Clinton's allies and advisers realized early on that the history-making nature of her candidacy was not generating much excitement among voters -- certainly not in the same way that electing the first African-American president had galvanized Democratic voters around Barack Obama in 2008.

    'Incredibly polarizing figure'

    "Hillary Clinton is an incredibly polarizing figure, in a way that Barack Obama was not," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. "He was an amazing orator, he was inspirational, the way that he spoke about helping to generate a post-partisan politics -- a lot of those promises and a lot of that language was something that had not been seen in politics."
    "She (was) running as the first woman candidate for a major party nomination, and that's incredibly significant," Lawless said. "But she also represents the establishment -- and those are competing forces."
    There were successes for female politicians on the ballot Tuesday. Tammy Duckworth picked up a Senate seat for Democrats from Illinois. Kamala Harris won a Senate seat from California and Catherine Cortez Masto kept the Nevada Senate seat in Democratic hands.
    But complicating matters for Clinton this time, older women who were excited about casting their first ballot for a female president had already done so when she ran against Obama in 2008.
    On the flip side, millennial women often rejected the notion that gender should be a factor in their vote, particularly if their loyalties lay with Clinton's primary rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
    Over her three decades in public life, Clinton has struggled to strike the right balance in addressing her gender and the role it has played in her career.
    She became a polarizing figure for women early on with her infamous remark about staying home and baking cookies. She made women's rights a central focus for her both as first lady and as secretary of state.
    She has touched on those experiences, as well as her own near-glass ceiling-shattering moments during key moments throughout the 2016 race, most notably at the Democratic convention. But she tried not to overplay her hand, perhaps in part because she was faced an opponent who openly accused her of playing "the woman card."
    "Frankly, if Hillary were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote," Trump memorably said during an April victory speech at Trump Tower after a series of primaries in northeastern states. "The only thing she's got going is the woman's card," Trump said. "And the beautiful thing is that women don't like her."

    Rallying cry

    The Clinton campaign tried to turn that remark into a rallying cry against Trump with a tweet that became a call-and-response line at her rallies.
    "If fighting for women is playing the #WomanCard, well... Deal me in."
    Still, Clinton chose not to make her gender the centerpiece of her campaign.
    Michelle Obama highlighted Clinton's delicate balance on gender while speaking on her behalf during a recent rally in Winston-Salem: "She has more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime. Yes, more than Barack. More than Bill. So she is absolutely ready to be commander-in-chief on day one. And yes, she happens to be a woman."
    The final weeks of the campaign were dominated by discussion of Trump's boasts in a 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape obtained by The Washington Post about his ability to grope women because "when you're a star, they let you do it."
    After he denied ever having carried out one of those acts, 11 women came forward to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct.
    It was Michelle Obama, a Clinton surrogate, who most effectively used Trump's comments about sexual assault as a rallying cry to get women to the polls during a powerful speech in New Hampshire last month.
    "It's not something we can just sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote in a sad election cycle," the First Lady said in that address. "If we have a president who routinely degrades women, who brags about sexually assaulting women, then how can we maintain our moral authority in the world?" she asked.
    Clinton took the first lady's argument a step farther during her subsequent rally with Michelle Obama in Winston-Salem: "Dignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot in this election," Clinton said. "And I want to thank our First Lady for her eloquent, powerful defense of that basic value."
    Celinda Lake, who has long specialized in polling and targeting messaging to women, noted that the Obamas have taken on a remarkably central role in the closing weeks of this campaign, particularly with their response to Trump's comments about women.
    "Both of them bring a certain moral authority to this as the father and mother of two young daughters," Lake said, citing Michelle Obama's speeches, as well as the President's interview with Samantha Bee and the speech he gave on the trail confronting sexism last Tuesday (Nov. 1). "It's easier when you're not the candidate, but they are the ones who have in some ways been the moral authority on gender here."

    Trump's weakness

    Long before the "Access Hollywood" tape emerged, Trump's weakness with female voters -- particularly white suburban women -- appeared to be his Achilles heel.
    But Clinton's aides feared that she lost a significant number of persuadable female voters because their enthusiasm was dampened by the FBI's late-breaking announcement that they were taking a new look at the emails of one of her aides.
    Still, Clinton pushed hard to rally women against Trump in the last days of the campaign.
    One of her closing ads amounted to a montage of what her advisers viewed as a montage of Trump's most offensive comments about women.
    "Anyone who believes, says, does what he does is unfit for president," the ad said in its closing tagline.
    Lake, the Democratic pollster, said research leading up to Election Day showed that sexism was actually only the third most cited reason that women said they were voting against Trump.
    The foremost concerns of women who could not support Trump, Lake said, was the fact that he would have been in control of the nation's nuclear arsenal and overall concerns about his temperament.
    But those women did not decide the election on Tuesday night. And in the end, the glass ceiling held firm.