My mother has never been a big fan of politicians. She finds their big talk and Beltway calculations incredibly irritating, a droning made the worse by the feedback loop of our 24-hour cable news cycle. Growing up, I generally looked to my father for advice on what ballot measures were worthwhile, and which candidates were wholly unqualified to hold public office. Although she takes her civic duty seriously, I know my mom heads to the polls not because she likes the candidates, but because she worries what might happen if she didn’t.
I don’t mean to imply that my mother is not political, however—quite the contrary. This is a woman with moral convictions so strong they intimidate. In her 20s, she marched against South African apartheid. Now a music teacher, she treats the civil rights movement as the core of her curriculum, year round. She thinks Barack Obama—who she voted for twice—is too conservative.
For those American stalwarts who shun divisive politics but feel the burden of their civic duty–the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be quite the colorful contest. On the conservative side, the media has stayed busy attempting to explain how a real estate mogul-turned reality star, and a neurosurgeon-turned amateur Holocaust historian, have become the Republican frontrunners. On the Democratic side, the mainstream narrative has focused on more intangible questions like candidate authenticity, and of course, “likability.” Although Hillary Clinton scored points for her well-prepared debate performance and her stately calm amid the chaos of Congress’s Benghazi debacle, she has long been criticized for her political connections and well-monied allies on Wall Street. In contrast, Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, has cultivated an image as an uber-leftist outsider (debatable) and passionate straight-talker (true) who riles up his opponents and is lighting a fire under the liberal base.
On paper, Sanders is the candidate people like my mom should be falling over themselves to support—a pseudo-hippie and self-described socialist from Vermont who sprinkles his speeches with buzzwords like political revolution and income inequality.
And yet right smack in the middle of an unnecessarily heated argument over apartment furniture, there was my mother, professing her love for Hillary in terms that would make any DNC partisan proud. “Today is a national day of rejoicing,” she typed. “[Joe] Biden isn’t running. So maybe my dream of Hillary as president is still possible … A woman may not come this close to the White House again in my lifetime.”
Whether Clinton’s political platform is all that different from Sanders’ continues to be a matter of some debate. But something almost everyone seems able to agree on is the Democratic frontrunner’s troubling “enthusiasm gap.” It only takes a quick Google search to turn up dozens upon dozens of articles bemoaning everything from her boring speeches to her boring book to her boring campaign events.
Gender bias has a role to play in all of this, of course. After being called out for their overt sexism during the 2008 campaign, Clinton’s opponents are much smarter this time around. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up. In an intelligent parsing of the problem for The New Yorker, Allyson Hobbs notes that the former secretary of state has been forced to walk a very fine line indeed. “Our culture, suffused with sexism, plays the role of the arbiter of a candidate’s authenticity.” Hobbs writes. “[Clinton] cannot appear too strong without risking her likability ratings; she cannot appear too vulnerable without her credibility suffering.”
Conventional wisdom holds that an uninspiring Clinton will struggle to win over jaded independent voters and may even lose some support among an exhausted Democratic base. But while she may not have the rhetorical elegance of Barack or the unvarnished anger of Bernie, pundits continue to overlook Clinton’s massive motivational factor—if not Hillary, then who?
Those of use who grew up in the era of the Clinton and Bush dynasties have seen women on presidential ballots—on both sides of the political aisle—for the past eight years. But my mother was born in the 1950s, and they have waited a long time for a female candidate this qualified. She comes from a generation that vividly remembers, for example, the fate of Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate to represent a major American political party. For these women, the executive branch’s glass ceiling seems increasingly impenetrable. I think many in this cohort, my mother included, believed they would not live to see a woman in the White House.
And then, along came Hillary.
Among the approximately 40 million Baby Boomers aged 65 and older, around 56% are women. That’s a pretty powerful voting bloc, especially when you consider that fewer than 130 million Americans voted in the 2012 presidential election—an election in which Barack Obama garnered a mere 5 million more votes than the runner-up, Republican candidate Mitt Romney. In fact, in 2012 Romney won the two-party vote among male voters by 8%—and still lost to Obama in both the popular vote and electoral college.
The 2016 election is a full year away—a veritable lifetime in American politics. A lot can change between now and next Nov. 8. But ultimately opponents of Hillary minimize the symbolic power of her gender at their own peril. My mother hasn’t been this fired up about a politician in 28 years—and that should scare the hell out of the GOP.