Ted Cruz is out. Bernie Sanders can’t realistically win. So it’s Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential election. Regardless of what you hear, watch closely, because gender perspectives will drive this election.
Conventional campaign policy dictates a pivot toward the center in the general election, in which candidates talk less about policies that energize their extreme bases and more about issues that affect moderate swing voters. That’s not going to happen this year. The election, like the Republican nomination fight, will be about personal attacks.
These are the gender-based subtexts that will actually drive the year’s election.
Donald Trump’s subtext will be that you cannot trust a woman to run the country, that Hillary Clinton is not what a woman ought to be, that she is shrewish and bitchy, and that real Americans will want a powerful man like him to run things.
Hillary Clinton’s subtext will be that her gender is irrelevant, that she is experienced and has good judgment, and that Trump’s worldview represents a naive, macho caricature of masculinity that threatens the world.
[tweetthis]Gender-based subtexts will drive the Clinton-Trump election. #Campaign2016.[/tweetthis]
Keep these subtexts in mind and you’ll see what’s really happening. Remember, they are no longer fighting for their bases, but for undecided voters in swing states like Florida who are trying to decide which candidate they identify with (or hate least).
If Clinton starts to fight about the appropriate role of a woman or her own womanhood, she will be fighting on Trump’s turf, and will lose ground with these voters.
If Trump defends masculinity and macho, he is fighting on Clinton’s turf and will lose ground with these voters.
Whoever wins will transform the vision of gender in America.
Here’s how this will play out.
Donald Trump will aim low with sexist attacks
Donald Trump’s mudslinging will not wane. He:
- Has consistently attacked rivals’ personal qualities and won’t stop. Trump goes for the low blow, from “Little Marco” Rubio to “low-energy” Jeb Bush to his suggestion yesterday that Ted Cruz’ father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Hillary Clinton’s long career, from the White House to the Senate to the State Department, is full of soft targets. Bill Clinton’s affairs and indiscretions will be front and center.
- Has a history of sexist comments. He remarked that no one would vote for Carly Fiorina because of “her face,” tore into Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly and retweeted a tweet calling her a “bimbo,” and has already accused Hillary Clinton of playing “the woman card.” Expect more remarks denigrating Clinton’s shortcomings, judgment, and how she exercises power based on the fact that she is a woman. The (not too subtly) coded message will be that you cannot trust a woman in a position of power.
- Will not moderate himself, despite Republican Party urging. In a normal election, the party and the candidate work together to secure the nomination. But Trump has fought the establishment at every step of the way, and will not play nice now. I’m sure the party will attempt to get him to rein in his attacks, in part to boost the chances of Republican candidates in other races. But he is not just unwilling, but unable, to do that.
- Will suffer attacks from within his party. Anti-trump sentiment among Republicans is widespread. Far from unifying the party, Trump will split it. Even after the pledge they took to support the nominee, can you really see him getting support from Lindsey Graham (who said voting for Trump was like being shot), Ted Cruz (who called him a narcissistic, pathological liar), or Marco Rubio (who impugned the size of his penis)? These attacks will justify Trump’s ignoring the party’s advice about his behavior.
Hillary Clinton will focus on policy, not gender
For Hillary Clinton, engaging on Trump’s turf is a deadly temptation — but one she will resist. She:
- Will criticize Trump’s politics and character, but not him as a person. Clinton would lose a mudslinging contest. She defends herself, but has not made attacks into an art form as Trump has. She will explain why she feels Trump is ill-suited to be president, but not at the personal, visceral level that Trump does.
- Will strive to project confidence and presidential gravitas. She will define two worldviews and try to prove hers is better. Negative, personal campaigning would undermine this.
- Will speak rarely about women’s and gender issues. Look for Clinton to focus on economic, trade, and foreign policy issues. The more she talks about abortion, equal pay for women, transgender bathroom laws, or gay marriage, the more she opens herself up to Trump’s gender-based attacks.
Outside forces will perturb these dynamics
These gender-based dynamics mean that Trump and Clinton will not be fully engaging with each other — because they’re arguing about different things. That’s an unstable and volatile situation. So watch these questions in particular.
- Whose worldview does the media fuel? Free cable airtime delivered the Republican nomination to Trump. Now that it’s Trump vs. Clinton, will Clinton get equal time? To do so, she will need to find ways to make news that don’t depend on the daily tit-for-tat. The Fox News channel, like the Republican Party, is split, so don’t expect it to serve up a constant stream of pro-Trump narrative.
- Do attacks about being part of “the establishment” stick to Clinton? Even if Hillary Clinton does not rise to the gender-based attacks, Trump will revive the “owned by Wall Street” accusations that Bernie Sanders has leveled. This attack could undo Clinton if she has no adequate response to it, because it will shake the faith of swing voters and liberals that she must win.
- How does Clinton respond in debates? Debates are the one place Clinton must reply to Trump’s provocations. If she deftly parries personal attacks with policy quips, she’ll win. If she counterpunches every Trump punch, they’ll both look like pigs in mud, and she’ll lose.
- What do the candidates’ running mates do? Look for Clinton’s vice presidential nominee to do the nasty work that she can’t, disparaging Trump’s personal qualities. Conversely, Trump’s VP pick, with a history of government experience, will fight the policy battles that he’s ill-suited for.
- What do the candidates’ spouses do? Bill Clinton will take out the stiletto and deftly shred Trump’s image — and he’ll get the airtime to do it. Melania Trump will get coverage in places like Vogue, People, or Vanity Fair, demonstrating what an elegant first lady she would be and, by implication, that Hillary Clinton lacks the ladylike qualities we should admire.
- How do women see themselves? In some sense, this election is a referendum on what an American woman should be. If more women see themselves in Clinton’s image, she will win swing states. If they can’t — and they buy into Trump’s more traditional (or reactionary) view — Clinton will be in trouble.