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Hillary Clinton has a theory about why she lost with white women

James Comey had a lot to do with it, she said in a Vox interview.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

The fact that 53 percent of white women voters cast their votes for Donald Trump in November has been a source of consternation, shame, and anger in the months since, as many Americans wondered how so many white women could vote for a man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. Now Hillary Clinton is offering her theory.

She believes James Comey’s October announcement that the FBI would further investigate the handling of her emails while she was secretary of state especially hurt her with women, she told Vox’s Ezra Klein in an interview Tuesday morning. After Comey’s announcement, men could turn to their wives or girlfriends and say, “I told you, she’s going to be in jail. You don’t wanna waste your vote.” And women voters who might have been on the fence decided not to vote for Clinton. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m taking a chance, I’m going to vote,’ it didn’t work,” Clinton said.

“I believe absent Comey, I might’ve picked up 1 or 2 points among white women,” she said. She carried the women’s vote overall, she noted. But white women, she said, tend to base their politics on their understanding of their own security — maybe the idea of voting for a candidate who was about to be “locked up” (in Donald Trump’s words) made some white women voters feel insecure about her.

However, Clinton noted that white people in general “have been fleeing the Democratic Party ever since Lyndon Johnson predicted they would,” and that women aren’t necessarily predisposed to vote for a woman candidate. “Gender is not the motivating factor that race was for President Obama,” she said.

She also cited something Sheryl Sandberg told her before the campaign: When a woman advocates for others, she tends to be well-liked. The moment she starts advocating for herself, people tend to turn against her. (She said something similar in an interview with Klein last year, arguing that “when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings,” but when she starts angling for a new job, that goodwill evaporates. She chalked it up to a negative media environment, but others have seen sexism at work in the peaks and valleys of her popularity.)

Those watching Clinton’s career through the lens of gender politics have long used variants of Sandberg’s maxim to explain why Clinton was such a popular secretary of state and such an unpopular presidential candidate. As Clinton noted, there was far more going on in the 2016 campaign than her personal popularity — Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a more detailed breakdown of the behaviors and motivations of white voters in his recent Atlantic story “The First White President.” But if Clinton is serious about devoting the remainder of her public life to advocating for progressive candidates and causes, it’s worth noting that she might be about to get more likable.