I’ve been watching online the stump speeches of Obama, McCain, Biden and Palin in the last 2 weeks. Of particular interest has been the audience backdrop to these talks. In Obama’s case, his stage is filled with women – predominantly middle-aged white women – as he stumps in states across the Midwest. It is not by accident. Four years ago George Bush defeated John Kerry largely on the strength of gains he made among white women voters since the 2000 election. Although Kerry won the overall women’s vote, 51-48%, largely on the strength of overwhelming support among black women who went for him 90-10% (they were 6% of the vote), Bush won among white women, 55-44% (they were 41% of the overall vote) and among married women 55-44%. All told, between 2000 and 2004, Bush gained 5% among white women, 6.5% among Latina women, and even 4% among African-American women. In short, if there was a demographic group that gave Bush his margin of victory in 2004, it was women. Why? In a word: terrorism. Four years ago the campaign largely turned on which candidate was better able to keep the country safe from terrorist attack
Why did this issue disproportionately help Bush among women? There has been a persistent “gender” gap dating to the 1950’s in presidential races, in which the women’s vote varies in statistically significant way from that of men. But that difference in not rooted in those issues commonly cited by the media as of particular concern to women, such as abortion or reproductive rights, equal rights and equal pay, workplace discrimination, pornography or violence again women. Instead the difference seems largely based on women’s greater willingness to support candidates who favor government action to protect the powerless or most vulnerable in society. Interestingly, that meant that women more than men favored the Republican Party – the party of “peace and prosperity” – in the 1950’s. Beginning in the Reagan years, however, that gender dynamic increasingly began to favor the Democratic presidential candidate. In 2004, Bush was able to reduce the size of the gender gap on the basis of his national security credentials, but it has reemerged with a vengeance in this election cycle.
Currently, Obama is running 14% ahead of McCain among women in polling at the national level (all data from the latest Rasmussen tracking poll), while McCain holds a slight 2% advantage among men. So although Obama’s support among men has gone up from what Kerry received, so too has his support among women. If McCain is going to close the gap, he needs to maintain his edge among men, but more importantly he needs to shore up his support among women, particularly white, middle-aged working class women – the bitter, bible-thumping, gun-toting voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. Obama understands this, and – as you can see at his stump speeches – he is doing everything he can to expand on Kerry’s standing among women and prevent McCain from cutting into this base. If you listen to Obama’s speeches, he emphasizes education, health care, tax cuts for the middle class, and the economy. The recurring anecdote he uses is the one he effectively raised during the second debate regarding how his mother, dying at age 53 from ovarian cancer, was forced to negotiate with insurance companies to prove this wasn’t a preexisting illness thus voiding insurance coverage. This is something that resonates with middle-aged women, many of whom are dealing with these very same issues, particularly with aging parents who are confronting similar medical concerns. And it provides a telling contrast with McCain’s emphasis on relying primarily on the private health care system as the basis of medical care in this country.
What about Sarah Palin? Although she draws huge crowds and has proved remarkably effective at reenergizing the Republican base, McCain has used her as his surrogate attack pit bull. This, in my view, is a risky strategy, because it undercuts Palin’s appeal among the very voters – white, middle-class women – that McCain needs to reach. If I’m McCain, I have Palin return to the themes that proved so successful early in her campaign: the van-driving, PTA-attending, hockey Mom who took on the political establishment and broke down the glass ceiling. She needs less pit bull, and more lipstick if she is to maximize her vote-getting potential among women.
Note that we again see the limits on the ability of campaigns to change the overriding context of a campaign. The economy is the central issue to be framed in this election cycle, and so far Obama is doing exactly what he must to frame this issue in a way that appeals to women voters and to counter McCain’s efforts to cut into this group. This is why we rarely see huge campaign effects on presidential elections.
In my next post I’ll address the issue of race. In many of my posts, I take care to point out how the political science perspective often differs from that of the media, or that of the punditocracy. But in many cases I think the media gets the story almost exactly right. For an illustration of this, see today’s article by Kate Zernike in the NY Times on race and the Obama campaign. In my view it is very well researched and generally quite accurate. Here’s the link: