Bernie Sanders still isn’t giving up his bid for the presidency.
After the Associated Press announced that Hillary Clinton has the requisite number of delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, the Sanders campaign insisted he’ll march onward to the Democratic convention in July. He says he will work to convince the party’s “superdelegates” to turn their backs on Clinton and vote for him instead.
They won’t, but over the next month you’ll likely be hearing a lot about pledged delegates versus superdelegates, contested conventions, and “the math.” And that’s fine: a vigorous, contentious contest is a sign of a healthy democracy. But amid all the conflict and drama, it’s easy to lose sight of the most historically significant fact of the 2016 election: For the first time ever, a woman is about to become a major political party’s nominee for president of the United States.
Were this any other election season, it would seem strange to even have to point it out. It’s a fact whose significance should be glaringly obvious. Last April, when Clinton announced her presidential bid, the strong possibility that the country would elect its first female president appeared likely to become one of the election’s driving narratives, just as President Obama’s ethnicity was so central to the 2008 election.
But the unlikely insurgent campaigns of both Sanders and Donald Trump quickly overshadowed that storyline. The 24-hour news cycle and the social media deluge gave the public an unprecedented view into the minute, often absurd and seemingly corrupt details of the US electoral process at work. Both Sanders and Trump capitalized on this new public awareness and worked to expose what they often call a “rigged system.” In doing so, they each cast Clinton’s candidacy as positively routine—a member of the establishment enjoying the advantages of a system tipped in her favor.
As that narrative took hold in many voters’ imaginations, Clinton’s gender became a taboo topic. Her female supporters were supposed to be offended when they were accused of backing her because she’s a woman. Sanders’ female supporters were supposed to be equally offended when they were accused of betraying their own kind.
In such a fraught climate, both campaigns felt safer leaving gender out of it, and the fact that Clinton has a chance to make history became a side note. But it’s a bigger deal than that. Especially given who she will face in the general election, her candidacy—and the fact that the candidacy belongs to a “her”—is historically momentous, no matter whom you support.
The Battle Ahead
Clinton has a solid chance of winning the primaries in both California and New Jersey, the states with the most delegates at stake. But even without those states, the AP says, she has secured enough pledged delegates and superdelegates to become the presumptive nominee. If Sanders wins California, he’ll likely try to use his formidable bully pulpit to make the case that he can flip Clinton’s superdelegates. But given that Clinton has received millions more actual votes than Sanders over the course of this election, those superdelegates—the very establishment against whom Sanders has railed—are unlikely to waver. Superdelegates, in fact, have never really swung a nomination. This year isn’t likely to be the first time.
Barring some unprecedented calamity on the convention floor, Clinton will become the country’s first female presidential nominee to represent a major party in a general election. And when she does, she’ll be facing a Republican nominee—Donald Trump—who seems to be at constant war with women.
He insinuated that reporter Megyn Kelly asked hard questions during the first Republican debate because she was having her period. He said women who have abortions should be punished. He insulted Carly Fiorina’s looks. He accused Clinton of playing the “woman’s card.” And all that’s just in the last year, when he was trying to get voters to like him—never mind all those interviews with Howard Stern.
In other words, gender will be a major issue in the general election, but not just because Clinton’s candidacy represents a historic first. Her presumptive opponent has already forced the issue. Trump will go there.
And so, it seems, will Clinton.
During a rare interview with her traveling press corps yesterday, Clinton addressed the historic magnitude of her likely nomination: “I do think it will make a very big difference for a father or a mother to be able to look at their daughter just like they can look at their son and say you can be anything you want to be in this country, including president of the United States.” And now, for the first time, it’s actually possible.