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As Hillary Clinton Begins Campaign, Impact of Gender Remains Key Question

Image: Former U.S. Secretary of State Clinton speaks on-stage with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and Gates as she begins "Not There Yet: A Data Driven Analysis of Gender Equality" in New York

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) speaks on-stage with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and Melinda Gates (L) as she begins "Not There Yet: A Data Driven Analysis of Gender Equality" in New York March 9, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) LUCAS JACKSON / Reuters

Hillary Clinton is not a new face on the political scene, but her 2016 presidential campaign offers something never before seen: The first woman candidate for either major party to enter the fray as the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.

Should she win the Democratic nod, as widely expected, the historic nature of her candidacy could fundamentally alter the way we think of Democratic and Republican voter groups.

Or, the data suggest, maybe not.

The bulk of poll data clearly shows that gender matters at election time – men and women tend to vote differently, with women much more likely to favor Democratic candidates. What is less clear, however, is how much the gender of a candidate matters.

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The picture is at best muddled but suggests other factors matter as much or more. The most recent set of figures, from the 2014 mid term elections, offer a good example.

Consider two female senate candidates from last November: Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, who won her race, and Democrat Michele Nunn of Georgia, who lost hers. In both cases it looks like those candidates did better with women than they should have – they outperformed national exit polls. The two females candidates beat the national average by 2 points.

In Iowa, Ms. Ernst won 49 percent of the overall women vote, while nationally Republicans won only 47 percent of the women vote.

In Georgia, Ms. Nunn won 53 percent of the women vote, compared to the 51 percent Democrats won nationally.

But when looking specifically at white women, the numbers look very different as you can see on this chart.

Ms. Ernst won white women in her race, capturing 51 percent of their vote. That sounds impressive until you look at the national vote where white women gave Republicans 56 percent of their vote.

So Ms. Ernst actually underperformed with white women compared to the Republicans nationwide.

Did Ms. Nunn do better with white women? No. She captured only 27 percent of the vote from those voters. Nationally, Democratic candidates won 42 percent of the vote from white women. She underperformed by about 15 points.

In both cases Ms. Ernst’s and Ms. Nunn’s gender did not help them – at least not compared to the national figures.

Of course, that’s just one year’s results from two very different states, but numbers from 2012 also raise questions about the impact of women candidates on the vote.

In 2012, Sen. Tammy Baldwin won her race in Wisconsin in the same election where President Barack Obama was on the ballot. And exit polls there showed no conspicuous gender advantage for Ms. Baldwin compared to Mr. Obama.

Both candidates beat their opponents by 15 points among women. In fact, Mr. Obama won 57 percent of the women vote in the state, while Ms. Baldwin won 56 percent.

Furthermore, those same exit polls suggest there was not a bigger turnout among women in Wisconsin for that election either. The percentage of the Wisconsin electorate that was female was the exact same in 20012 as it was in 2008, 51 percent – meaning Ms. Baldwin’s candidacy did not bring more women out to the polls.

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Ms. Baldwin’s candidacy featured some unique attributes. She is not only the first woman to serve as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin; in 2012 she became the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate.

But those unique attributes or the differences between the Iowa and Georgia electorates in 2014 may be the point. Candidates matter. Specific electorates and elections matter.

While national polls consistently show Democrats have an edge over Republicans among women, remember those are national polls of the entire electorate. Figuring out what those numbers mean for one specific female candidate in individual states (the way we measure electoral votes), particularly for a candidate named Hillary Clinton, is not easy.

Maybe women will rally around her and bump up numbers among women who have a chance to vote for the first female president. Maybe others will oppose her for a long list of complicated reasons. Or, maybe the recent edge Democrats have displayed with women will simply hold steady.

Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is truly historic, but it’s difficult to know what that will be worth at the ballot box.