At an Oakland rally on May 30 that drew tens of thousands, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made a special appeal to women.
“This campaign is listening to women,” said Sanders, in his gravelly Brooklyn accent to an eruption of cheers and applause from one of the candidate’s largest crowds.
It is no accident that Sanders focused on women. In the June 7 California Democratic Primary, women – who make up 57 percent of the state’s likely Democratic voters — are the most important factor in determining which Democratic candidate wins the state.
“It’ll be interesting to see how women split in California,’’ said Douglas McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University specializing in American politics.
“Bernie supporters are disproportionately female, because they [women] tend to be more liberal in general. On the other hand, Hillary is the first really viable female candidate for President, so how women sort of make sense of that interesting contrast remains to be seen,’’ McAdam said.
Clinton had a seven-point advantage among California women over Sanders at the end of May, while he led among men by four points, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Weeks of interviews with dozens of female Sanders supporters at rallies in Oakland and San Jose and at a Sanders get-out-the-vote event in Palo Alto painted a mixed picture of what they would do if Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee. Some said they would reluctantly vote for her to block Donald Trump. Some said they would never vote for Clinton.
“If that were my only option … I would have to,” said Kimber Gaige, a young woman living in Palo Alto who went to the event where Sanders supporters were calling voters. “But I wouldn’t be excited about it.”
Gaige said she would vote for Sanders if he ran independently, something some of his supporters are encouraging him to do.
For other women, the choice of whether to vote for Clinton in the general election is more difficult.
Sanders supporters say Clinton’s vote to go to war in Iraq and her role in the Libya intervention reflect a lack of foresight. Some say her foreign policy is too aggressive.
Lynn Huidekoper, a retired nurse who has lived in Menlo Park for 30 years, said she will wait to hear guidance from Sanders before deciding whether to vote for Clinton.
Some women consider themselves “Bernie or Bust,” and plan to abstain from voting, write in Sanders, or vote for a third-party candidate if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination. One-third of all Sanders’ supporters said they wouldn’t vote for Clinton in the general election, according to a March poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal.
Madelaine Bixler, a Stanford junior from Santa Rosa, says she would vote for Jill Stein— a Green Party candidate who is currently on the ballot in 21 states including California.
Bixler, a history major, said that she has trouble seeing Clinton as a feminist candidate.
“I would much rather use my voice to speak out against the flaws in our two-party system than to allow it to bully me into supporting someone I know has never represented me,” she said.
Clinton is struggling to convince women she is trustworthy: 53 percent of women say Sanders is honest and trustworthy, while only 31 percent of women say the same of Clinton, according to a recent poll.
“It’s his authenticity and compassion that’s number one for me,” said Gaige, of why she supports Sanders — qualities she says Clinton doesn’t have. “I really wanted to be for Hillary … I don’t know if it would be right voting for her. It goes back to that authenticity piece … I don’t feel it from her.”
Cindy Lopez, a freshman at UC Merced, explained that she is backing Sanders because of his promises to end political corruption. “She seems like your typical politician,’’ Lopez said of Clinton.
Like Lopez, some women say they support Sanders because they are excited about the change he is bringing to the political system.
“I think that this is incredibly exciting that we have someone who is brave enough to buck the establishment,” Huidekoper said. “To me, this is the most important election ever in American history. This is a watershed, a turning point for our country.”
McAdam said such anti-establishment feeling is a significant factor in Sanders’ rise to popularity — and why some Sanders supporters won’t vote for Clinton.
“We’re living in a moment where there’s a lot of generalized discontent with establishment types,” McAdam said. “And it would be hard to be more establishment than Hillary Clinton.”
Clinton’s 35 years in the public eye and deep ties to the Democratic party contribute to her reputation as an establishment figure, critics say. In contrast, Sanders is the longest-serving Independent member of Congress and a self-identified Democratic Socialist.
“In this moment in our political history, people don’t seem to want a known political commodity,” McAdam said. “They want an outsider, and Bernie feels like an outsider.”
The Clinton campaign has been targeting women in California with “Women-to-Women phone banking,” events where supporters gather to call other women. Volunteers at the events identify supporters, answer questions about Clinton and get out the vote.
At one such recent event in Palo Alto, about 20 women made calls on behalf of Clinton. There were a few younger women but most of them skewed older.
Among them was Candice Basham, a Sunnyvale resident, who has lived in the area since 1979. To women who won’t support Clinton, she said: “Do you think any man is going to consider you worthy enough to go to bat for you? Because they won’t. And they haven’t.”
Sally Clark, a therapist and independent voter who has lived in the Bay Area for about 35 years, was understanding of the women who say they won’t support Clinton.
“It’s very hard to switch over,” said Clark, who supported Clinton’s candidacy against Barack Obama in 2008 but ended up voting for Obama in the general election.
This time, Clark said she supports Clinton because she’s experienced, and is particularly excited about the prospect of having a woman as president.
“I am just thrilled for all the females in the U.S. that we might break the glass ceiling,” Clark said.
The Associated Press declared Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee on June 6, prompting backlash from Sanders’ campaign and supporters.
“It is unfortunate that the media, in a rush to judgement, are ignoring the Democratic National Committee’s clear statement that it is wrong to count the votes of superdelegates before they actually vote at the convention this summer,” said Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders’ campaign.
Clinton’s campaign responded to the AP announcement in a tweet: “We’re flattered, @AP, but we’ve got primaries to win.”
Despite the declaration, both campaigns and their supporters are working for a win in California.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out … And women will be critically important,” said McAdam. “You can bet that how the majority of women vote is likely to determine the outcome in California.”