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Hillary Clinton wins Democratic nomination: the experts react

The Conversation | Updated on: 8 June 2016, 18:31 IST

After a dogged campaign lasting more than a year and taking in all 50 states, former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton has secured the pledged delegates she needs to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Our experts take the measure of her victory, and plot her path to the White House.

Hillary and the 'woman card'

Clodagh Harrington, DeMontfort University

In the course of her victorious primary campaign, Clinton has put her gender front and centre. This is a big change from her 2008 run, where she skirted delicately around the fact that she was, in fact, female. But this time around, her gender is an asset to be flaunted.

It's true that Bernie Sanders polls higher among Democrat women aged 18-29, but looking at overall polling numbers among women, Clinton has the advantage, and older female voters are far more likely to show up at the polls in November.

She also has the advantage of running against a Republican candidate with no qualms about openly attacking her (and other women for that matter) on the basis of her gender. This may not significantly damage Trump's standing among his core constituency of conservative white men, but it's a devastating liability among female voters.

Great strides have been made on the gender equality front since 2008, but there is no room for complacency. Progressive legislation during the Obama years includes the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Restoration Act and the reproductive rights elements of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). The Violence Against Women Act has been reauthorised, and women in every state can now marry each other. Along with the appointment of two female Supreme Court justices, Obama can take much credit for these forward leaps.

Clinton's candidacy is another chapter in this story. Her primary victory is far from the end of the election story - but the "woman card" has now been well and truly dealt.

A campaign fraught with danger

Gillian Peele, Oxford University

Clinton's victory in the nomination battle is a historic first, but it's overshadowed by the gruelling fight with Sanders, which has thrown up deep generational divisions, and a unleashed new leftist populism that sees Clinton as an ally of a corrupt financial and political establishment.

Clinton must not only parry those threats, but must also wrestle with the implications of gender and gender-related issues. The general electorate looks very different from that of the nomination campaign, and Clinton will have to perform the delicate task of balancing the exciting prospect of a woman president with reassurances that America - and indeed, the world - is safe in her hands.

It may all come down to the electoral gender gap. While the Democrats have a longstanding advantage among women voters, Clinton cannot afford to alienate male voters, especially white ones. If she picks a female running mate, she might gravely endanger her appeal both to men and to moderate voters, who have no appetite for what they perceive as pure identity politics.

She must also unify not just the Democratic Party, but the country. Clinton should be wary of trying to respond to Sanders voters' more radical demands, and must certainly avoid being cast as either a cynical populist or a feminist crusader. Her strongest suit is her unrivalled competence on economic and foreign policy issues.

But however deftly she does it, the campaign against Trump will be unpleasant and unpredictable - especially if a third party candidate enters the fray to siphon off even a little of her support.

Clinton's victory runs both wide and deep

Matthew Ashton, Nottingham Trent University

In politics, it's often hard to separate perception from reality - and so it goes with Clinton's triumph.

Many in the media and elsewhere have argued that Clinton has struggled to win the nomination, even though plenty of Democratic contests in the past have followed a similar pattern. In this case though, because it was taken as a given that she was the automatic choice as the party nominee, anything other than an early win was always going to be seen as a sign of irretrievable weakness - a classic case of early expectations shaping the later narrative.

True enough, her victory is nowhere near as comprehensive as husband Bill's was in 1992, when he won 6m votes more than Jerry Brown, and 32 states to his six. But if you compare this year's race to the titanic Obama-versus-Clinton battle of 2008, it looks rather different. That year, Clinton won the popular vote by some measures but lost on delegates; she won 23 contests to Obama's 33.

Her 2016 result is far more secure than Obama's was in 2008. Let Sanders's more vocal supporters rail against the system (on some points quite justifiably); by every important measure, Clinton's victory has been absolute. She's won the popular vote by about 3m. Sanders has argued repeatedly that the way caucus results are reported means that the number of his voters isn't being properly reflected, but this ignores the fact that caucuses almost always have much lower voter participation than standard ballot-box primaries.

Clinton has also proved her appeal to a much more diverse range of people, something Sanders himself has grudgingly acknowledged. She may have struggled with younger voters, but she's done significantly better with African-Americans and Latinos in almost every state. These groups have been at the core of the Democratic base for decades now: had the party establishment handed the nomination to Sanders, as some of his campaign staff have been saying it should, they'd risk alienating a huge group of supporters they've spent years cultivating.

Had the race been much closer in the popular vote, that might have been a risk worth taking. But in the end, Clinton won simply because she got significantly more votes, won more states, and won more pledged delegates. Whatever some Sanders supporters may say, this is a decisive and comprehensive victory.

How to go after Trump

Adam Quinn, University of Birmingham

If Trump was not her opponent, Clinton's high negative ratings might be a fatal liability. But Trump has taken unpopularity and political vulnerability to strange new frontiers - and there are so many angles from which she might attack him that the real challenge will be to prioritise only one.

Over the course of his primary campaign (not to mention his life), Trump has said so many crass and offensive things about women, racial minorities, immigrants, and Muslims that it is possible to compose brutal attack ads consisting of nothing but his own words. He has almost no chance of winning among those groups, meaning he must run up a huge victory among white male voters to stand a chance. This in turn leaves a tiny margin for error, and a non-trivial chance that his campaign could end in electoral disaster.

Another option is to undermine Trump's claims to wealth and business success. Much of his appeal depends on his image as a self-made, deal-making billionaire, but that image is now fraying badly thanks to stories of Trump's poor investments, bankruptcies and ethically dubious ventures (exhibit A: Trump University, now the subject of legal action).

His refusal to release his tax returns has led many informed commentators to speculate that Trump's wealth may be far less than he has claimed, something that could drastically erode his appeal even to his fans.

No doubt these attacks will feature as the campaign proceeds - but in recent days, Clinton seems to have settled on a core strategy.

In a widely lauded foreign policy speech in San Diego, she derided Trump as "temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility". His ideas, she said, "aren't just different - they are dangerously incoherent. They're not even really ideas - just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies". And then the biggest punch: "This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes."

There's plenty of ammunition here. Deeply ignorant about foreign policy and apparently disinclined to study further, Trump has made wild, inarticulate statements on a number of issues, including how he would handle crucial security challenges in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

And while it may amuse some voters to see Trump trampling the norms of "political correctness" at home, even they might pause for thought before giving someone so volatile the power to put their families' lives at risk. This is the most powerful argument against him; expect to hear it a lot.

The Conversation

Matthew Ashton, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Nottingham Trent University; Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Birmingham; Clodagh Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Politics, De Montfort University, and Gillian Peele, Associate Professor in Politics and Tutorial Fellow, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

First published: 8 June 2016, 18:31 IST