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.
The general election begins
Jay Kleinberg, Brunel University London
“We all owe so much to those who came before.”
With those words, Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the debt the women of today owe to all those women and men who have fought for equal rights since the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. She now has the delegate numbers to secure her nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, the first time that a woman has become a major political party’s standard-bearer in the US.
Now that Clinton has clinched the Democratic nomination, the attention turns to the general election. Pollsters and commentators are divided on how will she fare against Donald Trump in the battle for the presidency – and then there’s the matter of her rival on the left, Bernie Sanders.
He’s said he will compete for every remaining vote and delegate, even though the outcomes in California and New Jersey mean he cannot win enough pledged delegates to defeat Clinton at the convention, especially given the overwhelming opposition of the party’s elite super-delegates to his nomination.
Will Sanders continue his battle, even with the party’s elite super-delegates overwhelmingly opposed to his nomination? He has stated categorically that he won’t, since he doesn’t want to be responsible for a Trump presidency. Sanders appealed strongly to millions of younger voters whom Clinton struggled to reach, but very few of them have said they would vote for Trump.
Clinton will soon benefit from President Obama’s full-throated endorsement and support, and will have a chance to expand her appeal when she chooses her running mate. All the while, Trump’s continued attacks on women, minorities, the disabled, and more will make him an unappealing candidate to many Democrats, young and old alike.
But Trump is unlike any opponent the Democrats have faced in living memory – and the next few months will be a wild ride indeed.
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.
What should Clinton learn from the primary campaign?
Neil Visalvanich, Durham University
Hillary Clinton finds herself in a wholly different position from where she was eight years ago, when she conceded defeat to Barack Obama on exactly the same day. While the outcome was effectively assured weeks ago, Bernie Sanders’s strong challenge has shown just how divisive a figure Clinton remains within and outside the party, and a far cry from the “inevitable” candidate she was once thought to be.
Clinton has proven to be a rather conventional candidate in a year where large portions of the electorate want something altogether different. She ends the primary campaign with historically high negative ratings, which would the highest since pollsters started tracking voter perception of presidential candidates if not for Donald Trump, the most unpopular major party nominee in modern history.
Her image problems extend across the political spectrum. Whether fair or not, many voters think her untrustworthy. Among left-leaning voters and Democrats, she continues to be associated with the centrist policies of her husband, and the lingering resentment that has come with that. For Republicans, she is inextricably associated with two of the American right’s most hated figures: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
But these problems always bedevil candidates who run for office as “successors” to outgoing presidents. The public has traditionally been sceptical of candidates who take credit for a prior president’s accomplishments, and after an eight-year administration a hunger for change tends to set in, especially if the prospective successor is a familiar face.
Successor candidates Richard Nixon (1960), George H. W. Bush (1988), and Al Gore (2000) all struggled with negative perceptions, and struggled to find consistent and coherent messages that distinguished them from both their predecessors and their challengers.
Despite this, successor candidates can still win. Al Gore won the popular vote (but lost the electoral college vote), and Bush senior defeated his Democratic opponent in an electoral college landslide. Bush in particular won by emphasising consistency and competence over an opponent, Michael Dukakis, whom he successfully labelled as extreme. As she ramps up what could be a rather conventional campaign against a bombastic and unpredictable foe, Clinton can take heart that others have walked this road before.
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.