Speaking tonight at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser at Danny Meyer’s house in New York, President Obama gave voice to an idea that’s widespread among Clinton’s biggest fans but not something her campaign likes to say explicitly: The fact that she’s a woman hurts her electorally.
“This should not be a close election,” Obama said, “but it will be, and the reason it will be is not because of Hillary’s flaws but because structurally we’ve become a very polarized society.”
But beyond polarization, Obama said that gender is a factor. “I will also say there is a reason why we haven’t had a woman president,” he said. "We as a society still grapple with what it means to see powerful women. And it still troubles us in a lot of ways, unfairly. And that expresses itself in all sorts of ways."
The idea that gender bias is holding Clinton back in the polls is widespread and difficult to prove. Taking advantage of the larger sample afforded by congressional races, Jennifer Lawless and Danny Hayes recently published Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, which argues that basically woman candidates don’t face an unusually hostile electoral environment. Instead, as Sarah Kliff writes, “it's the pervasive and damaging perception of a stacked playing field that stops women from stepping onto the field in the first place.”
Of course, that research might not carry over to presidential races, a subject that Obama knows a thing or two about.