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Column: A first female president? Notable but not unexpected

As America’s first African-American president finishes his second term, his historic presidency could be followed by another one — that of our first female president. There are regular references to Hillary Clinton’s gender on the campaign trail, but has the 2016 contest changed politics and the debates around gender?

We believe the 2016 campaign reveals more continuity than change. Yes, Hillary Clinton will make history if she is elected and finally shatters that glass ceiling. But opinions on women in politics and Clinton’s candidacy show the public does not think her nomination and possible victory have redefined the debates around gender in politics. Instead, the public sees them as notable and to some degree expected developments.

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  • Over the past 80 years, willingness to vote for a woman for president has increased dramatically. When Gallup first asked people about voting for a woman for president in 1937, only a third said they would do so. Since 1987, more than 80 percent of Americans have given that response. In June 2015, 92 percent did.
  • The prospect of electing the first female president is unlikely to bring many people to the polls.

More Americans express comfort with or indifference to the idea than excitement about it. Last year in an April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent said they were comfortable with a female president; 30 percent said enthusiastic.

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from May 2016, 38 percent of registered voters said the fact that Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president made no difference to them. An additional 19 percent said they were comfortable and 22 percent enthusiastic. (View the polls.)

File photo of voters by Getty Images

File photo of voters by Getty Images

When Bloomberg surveyed likely voters in June, 68 percent said “the historic nature” of her candidacy made no difference to them. Almost equal numbers wanted her to play it up (15 percent) as play it down (16 percent). For many, the possibility of Clinton becoming the first female president is an added bonus of her candidacy — not a defining feature.

    • Americans’ expectation that the country will eventually have a female president notwithstanding, they don’t believe Clinton’s accomplishment has been an easy one. As a Fairleigh Dickinson poll from April shows, 61 percent of registered voters believe women still experience obstacles that make it difficult for them to succeed in politics. Nearly equal numbers of men (60 percent) and women (62 percent) gave this response.

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  • As in past elections, other issues will be more important to women and men than the so-called women’s issues. The economy, terrorism, and health care rank highest in most polls. Men and women alike rarely mention issues such as abortion and paid leave as those most important to their vote.

In addition to continuity in people’s opinions, this election will likely underscore ongoing broader demographic changes that are having a significant influence on our politics.

  • If past patterns continue, more women than men will vote in 2016. In the 1980 election, the rate of voting by men and women was the same for the first time, and women have voted in greater numbers than men in every election since. According to Census recall data, 9.8 million more women did so in 2012.
  • There will be a gender gap, as there has been for the past nine presidential elections. Since 1980, women have voted more Democratic and men more Republican. Much early polling this year suggests the gap could be larger this November than in past years.
  • In this election, the marriage gap will probably remain larger than the gender gap. In general, married voters look more Republican than unmarried voters. The gender gap within the marriage gap is also likely to continue. Since 1984, married men have voted Republican, while married women have more frequently split their votes. Recent polls show many married men like Trump while married women prefer Clinton by a solid margin. Nonmarried women — a growing demographic group — have been a Democratic stronghold for as long as we’ve had data on their vote. Nonmarried men, slightly less so.
  • Underlying these trends is party loyalty, arguably a more potent political variable than gender. In Pew’s most recent poll, Republicans are supporting Trump by an 81-point margin. Democrats are supporting Clinton by 88 points. In June 2012, Republicans supported Romney by a similar 84 points; Democrats supported Obama by 83.

Americans believe women will continue to have a major presence in national politics. In the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, 71 percent said there are many women today who are likely to become a major party candidate for president. Only one in four said a woman as a leading candidate for her party’s nomination is unlikely to occur again soon.

Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination and possible presidency do not represent a new normal in our politics yet, but they are important chapters in a long-running story of women’s progress in politics.

Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour is hosting a series of columns to run during both of the 2016 national political conventions.

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