In an irony of identity-group politics, one important group is not identifying with Hillary Clinton: Her own. Seemingly on the threshold of being America’s first woman presidential nominee of a major party, polls show Mrs. Clinton clinging to a precarious lead among white women. This points to a potentially dangerous liability in November: For Hillary, proximity does not equal popularity.
A recent nationwide Quinnipiac poll of 1,451 registered voters showed Mrs. Clinton’s lead among white women within its margin of error, 44-42 percent, when matched with Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Against Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Mrs. Clinton trailed among white women 54-33 percent; against Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, just 9 percent.
Besides being Mrs. Clinton’s own demographic group — and seemingly most able to identify with her — the group is electorally important. Exit polling in 2012 found white women comprised 38 percent of voters.
After a quarter-century of exposure on the center of America’s main political stage, why is Hillary Clinton faring no better with her own?
The answer is complicated. She has explicitly alienated those on her right while implicitly estranging some in the center and even the left.
The right’s alienation can be due to policy and political differences. Yet even before these, she had rebuffed them in two unforgettable 1992 episodes.
The first occurred during her famous “60 Minutes” interview with Bill Clinton, as he faced potentially fatal political accusations of an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Describing her attendance, Hillary stated: “I’m not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Her shot ricocheted through conservative sensibilities disparaging country music and those “little” women.
She quickly compounded it. Defending her work for a prominent law firm from conflict of interest charges during Bill’s term as Arkansas governor, she remarked: “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas …”
Hillary later made amends with Tammy Wynette, but never with millions of women for her sarcastic slights of their lives.
However, Mrs. Clinton’s dead heat within her own demographic group is due to more than just alienating conservatives. She has also created ambivalence in the center and even on the left. It springs from a notable difference between what Mrs. Clinton is perceived to stand for and how she has actually stood.
At the crossroads of traditional roles — which she so disparaged in 1992 — and the feminist one she symbolizes, Hillary has repeatedly chosen the former.
In her 1992 “little woman standing by my man” comment, that was exactly what she appeared to be doing — unless it was something even more self-serving — such as preserving her husband’s position and thereby her own.
In choosing between her career in Washington and Bill’s career in Arkansas, she chose the latter. Choosing between her last name and Bill’s, she chose his — once Bill lost re-election for governor. Now, “Rodham” is just an afterthought.
When she disparagingly said she could have “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” she was countering conflict of interest charges. It went without saying her career benefited greatly from Bill being the state’s top elected official.
Her leadership opportunity on health care reform — an enormous failure — arose because Bill was president.
Arguably, the springboard for her New York Senate run was the national sympathy arising from her most famous “standing by my man” moment during the Monica Lewinsky revelations at the end of Bill’s second term. Even her best moment in the 2008 campaign was when she teared up during questioning in the New Hampshire primary; it saved the state, but not the race.
None of these opportunities would have come without the name “Clinton,” which Bill had already made supremely valuable among Democrats.
In popular parlance, Mrs. Clinton’s career has shown her “talking the talk,” but not “walking the walk” of today’s self-reliant woman. No wonder her own demographic group is ambivalent about her candidacy now.
This ambivalence also demonstrates Mrs. Clinton’s glaring general election liability. Despite long and prominent exposure, those most like her do not like her that much. Her problems with her own kind resonate in the general electorate. The Quinnipiac poll showed her leading Mr. Trump 46-40 percent — a slim lead and well below a majority. Matched against Mr. Cruz, her lead was just 45-42 percent, and against Mr. Kasich, she trailed 47-39 percent.
Even the general public is, at best, ambivalent toward her. This should mean Republicans have a better chance defining their candidate in November than Mrs. Clinton will have to redefine herself — especially if she has been unable to do so after so long to those most like her.
• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.