Can A Woman Win In 2020? Former Clinton Comms Director Weighs-In

Aug 22, 2019

2016 saw the first woman ever to be nominated for president. This election cycle, six women are vying to be the first female elected president.

As communications director for Hillary Clinton, Jennifer Palmieri had a front row seat to that failed effort. Palmieri was also communications director for President Obama and has written a best-selling book called Dear Madam President.

Palmieri is in Missoula working on another book, and sat down with Sally Mauk to talk about the 2016 campaign—and what it will take for a woman to win in 2020.

Sally Mauk: I do want to talk to you a little bit about 2016, and I know you've said that, at the time, during the campaign, you didn't think that it would be hard to elect a woman president.

Jennifer Palmieri: I think that's one of the most important things I can tell people about the experience, is that I didn't think it was going to be hard. Because I think that then opens them up to hearing more about what I have to say about how hard it was.

(laughter)

I mean, I was excited to elect the first woman president, but that hasn't been a life goal … I just, I thought we'd elected the first black president, and I thought in America that was a very hard thing to do. And I felt like in my own career, I had done really well and always felt supported by men and women both. And I just thought, “You know, eventually there'll be a woman president. I guess it'll be Hillary. Great, good for her.”

After the experience, I see things very differently.

Mauk: Well, I want to talk about that, but I want to just point out that your boss didn't think it would be easy.

Palmieri: She did not.

Mauk: This would be Hillary Clinton.

Palmieri: Hillary Clinton was the least surprised person, of everyone on the campaign, that we lost because, you know, she was Hillary Rodham for a long time, but she'd been like, quote-unquote Hillary Clinton for about 40 years, and understood that she drew a lot of fire, and was always kind of a polarizing figure going into the campaign.

I thought that was about her being in politics for a long time, and if you survive a long time, you're going to have a lot of scar tissue, right? You're gonna get attacked. And I thought that's what it was about, and then I came to realize that I think it's about a woman.

And in this case, her, almost like always stepping outside of the box that women had normally been in. And I think there's something about that that people find vexing. They don't quite know what to make of her. There's something about it that confounds them. There's “something about her I just don't like.” Right?

Mauk: Well, here we are four years later Jennifer, and there are all these women running for president now. Will it be easier or harder for them to win because of 2016? That's a question a lot of people speculate about.

Palmieri: I mean, you know, who's really to say, but I think it's probably easier.

The thing that I worry about is when I hear things like, “Oh well, a woman can't win,” and I hear a lot of women saying a woman can't win.

Mauk: That 2016 proved that?

Palmieri: That 2016 proved a woman couldn't win. So I heard that a lot at the beginning of the campaign, you know in January, February. I hear less of it now that you see Elizabeth Warren in particular doing as well as she is.

My takeaway from ‘16 and ’18 is, you know, there's been two times that we've had elections when Donald Trump was a factor, and both times (pause) in ’16, a woman got more votes, and in ’18, women won by historic numbers. So I don't want people to draw the wrong conclusion, but I do think that it's easier.

You know, the day that Elizabeth Warren got into the race, Politico did a story about how is she going to deal with her “Hillary-likability” problem. And first I was discouraged to see that, but then everybody went crazy on Politico, like, “How can you say this?”

Now at least, I think there are still things that you know, men may have an easier time of, but we’re more cognizant of these biases that hurt women.

Mauk: You’ve written that women are held to a different standard than men, and one of the examples you wrote about was Amy Klobuchar, who got blasted for how she treats her staff, apparently rudely at times.

And you pointed out that a male candidate who treated staff that way would be seen as kind of a tough leader, but a woman like Klobuchar does that, and is seen as, you know, the B-word.

Palmieri: And Sally, if I may say, I think I have a lot of insight in this particular article ‘cause I really thought about it.

Look, Amy Klobuchar has a reputation of being really hard on staff, and I think that there is some truth to that. Amy, she's a friend of mine, she has owned that, she's said, like, she needs to do better. So I don't want to excuse mistreatment of staff.

But what I know is that two things: One, you know, it will be written that Rahm Emanuel, you know, was former mayor of Chicago, is tough on his staff, but it's done in a way to describe how colorful and hard-charging he is.

And, you know, the same (pause) I worked for Bill Clinton …

Mauk: … Known to have a temper.

Palmieri: Known to have a temper: We would refer to it as “purple rage” when he would just blow up, you know, usually about the press coverage.

As staff, we thought it was cool to work for a guy that was hard-charging and tough because it showed how tough we were. And usually that man was successful and respected, and we wanted to be associated with him, but we think it's humiliating to work for a woman who's hard to work for.

And that was like a big insight to me about things on our own, like, staff that our minds have to change.

Mauk: Well, you've also written that there is overt bias and then there's unconscious bias. And you've talked about how voters will say something like, “You know, there's just something about Pete Buttigieg that I just like.” And then they'll say about Elizabeth Warren, 'There's something, I'm not sure what, but I just don't like her.'" And that's an unconscious bias, right?

Palmieri: Yeah. And it's when we get to those intangibles … I mean it's fine to say, 'Elizabeth Warren's for Medicare for All, and I think that's a bad solution,' right?

But it's the, 'There's something about her, I just don't know,' or 'I hear a lot about Beto O’Rourke, who's a very talented politician. I have a lot of respect for him, particularly how he handled the shootings in El Paso.'

But you hear that about Buttigieg and Beto, right? Like, 'There's something about him,' or, like, 'I don't find the woman candidates inspiring.' They do find Mayor Pete and Beto inspiring.

I thought a lot about that because Vanity Fair asked me to write a piece. After they put Beto O’Rourke on the cover, Vanity Fair asked me to write a piece about why the women candidates weren't breaking out as much as the male candidates were earlier in the race. It's like, well, maybe because you put Beto O’Rourke on the cover of Vanity Fair, and so I thought a lot about it.

Beto, I find Beto inspiring, too, and when I see him, I see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I see Jimmy Stewart on the Senate floor with the floppy hair and the exaggerated hand gestures alt-right the insistent voice.

It's a very familiar thing to us. And I hear Pete Buttigieg talking about bullying, and how he stands up to bullies, and you, like, see Atticus Finch.

These are deep, deep models that we have in our heads about what's inspiring, and the tough thing for women, and for candidates of color, is that white men have a very easy path to being seen as selfless and inspiring by virtue of the fact that they're so privileged, right?

So when Joe Biden …

Mauk: … they can afford to be.

Palmieri: They don't have anything at stake themselves, right? And it's not anything to take away from any of these men, because they are inspiring, and they are doing, they are all running for president because they love this country and they want to help it.

But when Joe Biden does a video like he did when he announced his presidency, about the Charlottesville race riots, and he stands up to fight racism, we find that selfless because, you know, he's a very successful white man. He doesn't have anything at stake.

But you know when Cory Booker talks about that, you're like, 'Oh, well, he's a black man who wants be president.' Or if Amy Klobuchar talks about that, you're like, 'Well, she's trying to get power. She's trying to be the first woman president, she's trying to seize power.'

And he's [Biden’s] giving it back. Right? This is when I'm like, Oh, this stuff is really deep.

Mauk: How does a woman candidate for president overcome that? What's your best advice?

Palmieri: I mean, my best advice is win, right?

I did have this awareness late in the campaign in ’16. I still thought Hillary was going to win, but I think it was like October, and I thought, Oh. I just had this, like, thunderbolt.

I said, what we have done is we have turned her into a female facsimile of the qualities that we look for in a male president.

Mauk: … Don't show emotion.

Palmieri: To show emotion, she's got to prove she can be commander in chief. And, you know, Trump's going to hurl terrible insults on the debate stage, and she’s got to …

Mauk: … keep her cool.

Palmieri: She can't ever show he's lurking behind her, and she can't blanch. And you're like, well no wonder people think she's inauthentic, right? No wonder people are like, 'I don't really have a good sense of who she actually is.'”

And then at the same time I thought, but I don't have any other model.

And we had to prove that she could be president, so that's proving she could do the job the same way as it's always been done, which is always by a man. And I still thought she was going to win at that point, but I thought, wow, when she's the first woman president, it's going to be a big deal. Like, that's a big responsibility on her to show what this looks like.”

And I do think that it's very possible a woman can end up as our nominee. It's very possible that a woman can win, but there's not (pause) you know, we're past the sort of 'checklist mark' for women trying to succeed, right? It's like we’re in unchartered territory now.

And now I think you just have to do it in your own way.

Mauk: … And be authentic.

Palmieri: And be authentic, and dress the way you dress, and understand that.

I think that's what's so interesting about the freshmen women in Congress now, is that a lot of them do, you know, come from communities that are not wealthy, that are very diverse, and it’s so important that their communities look at them and see, somebody who looks just like me is a member of Congress.”

That's how I think you get real change, when the government does look like the people it’s supposed to represent.

Mauk: I think you've been informally advising Gov. Bullock on his …

Palmieri: See, Bullock is a good friend of mine, and I think that Montana is really lucky to have, (pause) I just find him to be a remarkable leader. I think that if America gets a good look at Steve Bullock, America is going to love him. And I think Iowa’s going to love him, and that is a good path for him.

Mauk: Can you envision a 2016 Trump supporter voting for a Democrat in 2020?

Palmieri: Yes, yes.

Mauk: Really?

Palmieri: Yeah, and this state taught me that, and actually another place I spent a lot of time in lately is Mississippi, which happens to be the state I was born in, and I've met people, I've met people with Governor Bullock.

He'll ask them, 'Well, tell her why you voted for Trump,' and a lot of times, it's like, 'You know, I just never feel like somebody was looking out for me.'

Or, 'I just, we just needed a big change, and I thought maybe he'd just like blow up the system, be better, but I don't love it, like I don't love all of it.'

You know, would that person vote for Steve Bullock for president? Yeah, they would. I think that's possible.

I also have heard, 'Well I couldn't, I just couldn't vote for Hillary. There's something about her I just didn’t like.'” I've heard that a lot here.

Mauk: One final question: Can you envision someone who was a Bernie supporter in 2016, and still is, voting for someone else?

Palmieri: If he's not the nominee, I could see, (pause) yeah, I worry about that. I could see that as a problem. I do, yeah. I do worry about that.

Mauk: I have been speaking with Jennifer Palmieri, who was the communications director for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for President Obama during his tenure.

It's great to talk politics with you Jennifer. Thank you so much.

Palmieri: So fun. Thank you Sally.

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