Tag Archives: 2012 presidential election

Bachmann and Palin: Gender or Generational Gap?

Two news stories today prompted me to pick up the thread of the discussion I started in a previous blog post regarding Chris Wallace asking Michele Bachmann whether she was “a flake.” The latest Newsweek magazine has Sarah Palin on the cover, and the interview inside will undoubtedly stoke the “is she or isn’t she?” flames even more.  Meanwhile, the latest Iowa poll now shows Bachmann ahead of Romney (although the lead is within the poll’s margin of error) and with much higher favorability/unfavorability ratings, capping her polling surge that began after the recent New Hampshire debate. With both women now in the top tier of Republican candidates, it is an opportunity to return to an issue I raised in my post regarding the Bachmann-Wallace contretemps – do women presidential candidates face a higher hurdle because of their gender? Note that I wasn’t the only one to wonder whether Wallace would have asked a man that same question.  Shortly after my post, Wallace videotaped an “apology” in which he admitted that “I messed up”, even as he repeated the assertion that some people thinks Bachmann’s a flake.  Several of you emailed me (all males who refused to post publicly!) to take issue with my question, arguing that Bachmann’s treatment reflected the fact she is, in fact, a flake.  But not all of you hid behind the guise of anonymity: Anna Esten went on the record with some thoughtful comments that took issue with my post. Her comments remind me that the Bachmann/Palin candidacies may turn more on the generational divide in politics as on any gender gap.

Esten’s point is simple: we should stop thinking of Bachmann and Palin as female candidates, and instead treat them as candidates who happen to be female. As she writes: “The American people are still unable to see past gender stereotypes of protecting women. When men are asked tough questions, they should be able to stand up for themselves and fight back. When women are asked tough questions, it’s seen as mean. Simply, many believe that women shouldn’t have to experience the harsh environment of running for president, a belief that leaves those people thinking that women are inherently unqualified to hold such an office.

Women aren’t held to a different standard than men. We just haven’t yet seen a woman (in my opinion) strong-willed enough to take politics like a man, or find another way to prove their merit as a presidential candidate.”

Esten is part of the college-age cohort that came out so strongly for Obama in 2008 and who were least likely to support Hillary Clinton during the Democratic nominating contest.  In the heat of the Clinton-Obama fight, I often asked my female students whether they felt any inclination to support Clinton because of the barriers women faced in electoral politics at the presidential level.  For the most part, they looked at me like I had two heads. Gender just didn’t factor into their calculus. And yet, nationally, as the following Gallup poll shows, Clinton did attract stronger support among women Democrat voters than from men, who went more strongly for Obama.

However, there was a definite generational skew to Clinton’s support among white women; the younger the voter, the less likely she was to support Clinton.




To be sure more than gender is at play here – income and education are also factors affecting Clinton’s relative support.   Nonetheless, there’s a definite generational difference at play – there is a 22% polling difference in Clinton’s support between the oldest and youngest age cohort.  Clearly, women who came of age when the barriers to their participation in politics were still very much in place were much stronger supporters of Clinton than were the younger women voters who benefited from the  breaking of those barriers.

Of course, one last glass ceiling remains: in contrast to many democracies, we have yet to elect a woman president.  Whether Bachmann or Palin can break through will depend in part on the relative influence of generational versus gender factors.





Obama, Huckabee, Romney in Dead Heat for 2012 – Or Maybe Not


Two recently released surveys of registered voters appear to provide contradictory results regarding the 2012 presidential election.  The first, conducted by Pew during the second week of March, shows President Obama handedly beating a generic Republican candidate for president.

However, CNN released a second poll of registered voters yesterday, conducted by Fairleigh University from March 21-28 that indicates Obama is in essentially a dead heat with both Mike Huckabee (46%-46%) and Mitt Romney (Obama leads 44%-43%) in the 2012 race.

As Peter Baumann notes in an e-mail, these results seem surprising; it is more often the case that incumbents do worse against hypothetical generic opponents because survey respondents can fill in the blank with their ideal candidate.  When matched up with specific candidates, however, voters are asked to choose between two real people, and incumbents often benefit.  If Peter is right, what explains the results in these two surveys which show Obama doing better against the hypothetical Republican?  The answer, I suspect, lies in the question wording of the respective surveys and in the smaller sample size of the Dickinson survey.

Pew begins its survey by asking respondents whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of a number of people, beginning with President Obama.   They also ask about former presidents Bush and Clinton and House Speaker John Boehner.

Although Obama’s job approval ratings are hovering in the mid-40’s, his personal favorability ratings have consistently been higher.  In the Pew poll, 58% of respondents view Obama “very” or “mostly” favorably, compared to 27% who view Boehner this way.  (Bush is viewed favorably by 42% and Clinton leads the pack with 67% favorability rating).   After leading with the question about Obama’s favorability rating, and implicitly comparing it to that of Boehner and Bush (and Clinton), Pew then goes on to ask about the 2012 hypothetical matchup with a generic Republican.   So respondents, in thinking about that generic “Republican”, do so in the context of being asked about two unpopular Republicans: Bush and Boehner.

Now look at how Fairleigh Dickinson begins its survey.

By beginning the survey this way, respondents are “primed” to answer the head-to-head matchups question primarily in terms of their views on whether the country is heading in the right direction, and on Obama’s job approval – not his favorability ratings compared to other Republicans.  As you can see, a substantial percentage of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, and a near majority disapprove of the job Obama is doing. It’s not surprising, given the way the question wording primes them, that respondents in the Fairleigh Dickinson poll see Obama doing less well in head-to-head matchups than Pew finds him doing against a generic Republican opponent.

There is a second difference between the polls as well. Although the Dickinson survey of 800 respondents has a margin of error of +/- 3.5%, which is quite similar to Pew’s margin of error (+/- 3%) this does not hold for all the survey questions in the Dickinson poll. In fact, the numbers for these subsamples of respondents comparing Obama to Romney and Huckabee are much smaller (see table above) meaning the margin of error for both groups is substantially larger than the poll’s overall margin of error.  So, we need to view these results indicating that Obama is in a dead heat with both candidates with the requisite dose of salt.

My point here is not to say that one poll is more accurate than the other.  It is to remind you that, as we enter the 2012 presidential campaign, you will be inundated with polling data, much of which will be spun by politicians and pundits according to their political persuasions and which will be hyped by news media outlets that views poll results as “hard” news.  As consumers, you need to cut through the spin and hype to examine the details of the polls.  Pay attention to both question wording and order, and to the margin of error associated with survey subsamples.  All polls are not alike.

Addendum (2:32 p.m.)  Three days ago Quinnipiac released a nationwide poll taken March 21-28 that received quite a bit of national play for its headline “Obama Gets Lowest Approval, Reelect Score Ever”.   His approval/disapproval rating was 42/48%, and 50% of respondents said he did not deserve reelection. Of greater relevance to this post,  however, is that in the hypothetical 2012 matchup between Obama and a generic Republican, the poll found that  Obama got 36% of the vote compared to 37% against the unnamed Republican.   In contrast to the Pew poll, however, the Quinnipiac poll used different question wording; the generic matchup question was the first one Quinnipiac asked respondents, so they were not primed to respond in terms of a specific Republican, as they were in the Pew poll.   Again, it is a reminder that question order can influence polling results, even when identical questions are asked.  

Palin for President? “Refudiating” Her Critics Once More

I just received James Carville’s latest fundraising letter on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (don’t worry, I get them from the Republicans too – it’s my job.)  Featured prominently on the envelope is a not very flattering picture of Sarah Palin, in full snarl.  She looks like she just saw Katie Couric move in next door. Inside, in bold type, Carville warns me that “Palin’s summer of lies road trip is in full swing”, and that she’s “already campaigned for more than a dozen tea party lunatics running for Congress” and has plans to stump for many more.

The fundraising letter reminds me just how formidable a political figure Palin has become. It was little more than a year ago that critics sounded her political obituary in the wake of her decision to quit her position as Governor of Alaska.  Now, if Carville is to be believed, she has become the de facto face of the Tea Party, and a leading figure in the Republican Party, one whose political endorsement is perceived to carry great weight.  How did she manage to escape the political oblivion to which her critics consigned her?

In retrospect, the decision to quit the governor’s position looks like a stroke of pure genius – whether or not she actually plans to run for President. To begin, it freed her to raise money much more easily than she could have done if she remained in Alaska.  Consider the latest fundraising totals for SarahPAC – her leadership PAC – as reported to the FEC.  It is her best showing to date, and she trails only Romney among potential Republican presidential candidates in fundraising in the 2010 electoral cycle. (Note that at the time this chart was created it did not include Pawlenty’s totals for the 2nd quarter 2012.)

This money is important for three reasons.  First, as the Carville fundraising letter notes, Palin is piling up political IOU’s through judicious use of campaign contributions.  Second, it serves as important “seed” money with which to build the infrastructure of an effective fundraising organization – a necessity if she’s going to be a serious presidential contender.  Note that to date most of her money has been raised through social networking sites, like Facebook.  This is in stark contrast to Romney, who has a full-fledged fundraising infrastructure already in place from his 2008 presidential run.  (Palin’s 2008 fundraising was controlled by McCain).   Finally, and not least, the media uses fundraising to measure candidate viability in the “invisible primary” that precedes the actually nominating process.  Because the media is not very good at juggling multiple candidate story lines, however, it is crucial that Palin create the perception that she is one of the top-tier candidates. Moreover, she is touting her ability to attract “small” donations – those less than $200 which formed a significant portion of her latest fundraising totals. About 50% of those who contributed money during the second quarter gave less than $200. That compares with the first three months of 2010, when SarahPAC earned about $400,000, with small donors making up only 25% of contributors. (Recall that this is precisely how Obama’s candidacy was deemed credible by the media – all those “small donations” [which turned out not to be so small!] propelled him into the top tier of prospective presidential candidates.)  In terms of media perceptions, Palin will pass that viability threshold if her fundraising total continues to rank among the top 2-3 candidates. As these news stories make clear, the media is beginning to portray her as a serious candidate, as opposed to the previous narrative in which she was portrayed as Governor Quitter.

The second criterion by which the media assesses candidate viability during the invisible primary is trial heat and other polling results.  Here again, Palin may yet confound the critics; the latest PPP survey of “American Voters” has her in a dead heat with Obama.

Q8 If the candidates for President next time were Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, who would you vote for?

Sarah Palin …………………………………………….. 46%

Barack Obama………………………………………… 46%

Not Sure…………………………………………………. 9%

In assessing this poll, however, keep in mind that Obama was tied with or behind almost any Republican candidate with whom he was matched in a hypothetical vote.  So this says less about voters’ attitudes toward Palin than it does their feelings about Obama.  Moreover, other polls taken earlier this month have Palin trailing Obama by significant amounts. I can’t believe she’s closed the gap that much in a matter of days. In any case, it is far too early to take these trial heat polls for 2012 matchups very seriously.

My point is simply that far from being finished, Palin is by any measure a significant player in American politics today.  The question becomes: how did she pull this off?  One clue comes by viewing her latest fundraiser video.  In it, she comes closer to capturing the spirit animating the Tea Party movement than does any other Republican candidate I’ve seen so far. And the video goes a long way toward illustrating the strengths – and the weaknesses – of a potential Palin presidential candidacy.

To begin, the video tries to do something that is not easy: to both register anger at the direction the country is going, but also to strike an uplifting tone, suggesting better times are ahead. The target audience is clearly one that is crucial to any Republican hoping to recapture the White House in 2012: women.  The video is, at its core, about women and directed toward women – almost all the faces are female, mostly white, across a range of ages.

Note that the video is almost devoid of any policy references, beyond a mild jab at the recently pass health care plan.  Instead, it tries to capture the sense of unease that is driving the tea party movement by focusing on enduring values that Palin suggests we are in danger of losing.

The video is a reminder that Palin’s candidacy is fueled by discontent more than a set of political principles, and that she is marketing a personal image more than a clearly honed political philosophy.  Consider the very name of her leadership PAC – SarahPAC – it is focused on her.  Her rivals, in contrast, have named their PACs for political ideals – see Romney’s FreeStrongAmerica PAC, or Pawlenty’s FreedomFirst PAC (The exception is Huckabee’s HuckPAC.)

Why, then, do I suggest the video also indicates her weakness as a candidate?  Despite the uplifting tone, it possesses an underlying edge.  The Mama Grizzly isn’t nurturing her cubs – she’s rearing up on her hind legs to defend them.  The pink elephants?  Ready to stampede Washington in 2010.  That effort to play both nurturing and avenging mother proved very polarizing during the 2008 campaign, I argued then, and the evidence suggests it continues to do so today.  Palin the person remains immensely attractive to a significant portion of the population.  But another portion dislikes her intensely.  Not surprisingly her favorability ratings have if anything dropped during the last year, to just under 40%, while a bit more than half of those surveyed now view her unfavorably.

It is not clear to me that it will be possible for Palin to reverse these numbers and broaden her political support.  Her biggest advantage, I think, is that liberal pundits continue to dismiss her as an intellectual lightweight who can’t think and put on lipstick at the same time.  That sentiment feeds the populist sentiment that is driving both her undeclared candidacy and the Tea Party movement more generally – that there is a Washington, DC-centered “elite” that is out of touch with the concerns of “ordinary” Americans.  If Palin can successfully position herself as the face of this movement – something the Carville letter suggests she is doing – she may yet “refudiate” her critics one more time.

Addendum:  Brendan Nyhan has an interesting post comparing Palin’s polarized support with Hillary Clinton’s, and suggesting how Palin might learn from Clinton regarding how to reduce that polarization.

Hillary in 2012? Resurrecting the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits

You knew it would happen. One year into the Obama presidency, with health care legislation stymied and the economy still shedding jobs, albeit at a slower pace, and with Obama’s approval/disapproval ratings hovering near the break-even mark, some political pundit was going to raise the inevitable question: should Hillary challenge Obama in 2012?  And so it has, with pundits here and here openly speculating about whether Hillary will take the plunge in 2012.

If Hillary does decide to throw her pantsuits back into the ring, the trigger, according to this columnist will be clear evidence that Iran has acquired nuclear weapons and/or another terrorist attack on U.S. soil following the failed Christmas Day crotch-bombing and the Fort Hood massacre.  Clinton will cite these events, and Obama’s unwillingness to take a harder line against Iran, as her justification for resigning as Secretary of State, thus freeing her to challenge Obama in the 2012 nomination race.  Quoting the familiar “Washington insiders” (and who are they?  Bill Clinton?), the columnist argues that Hillary feels marginalized as Secretary of State and – quoting statistics from my blog – points out that only about half of the secretaries of state serving in the post-World War II era have lasted a full term.  He writes:

“The same, seemingly in-the-know sources say Mrs. Clinton will also resign — and run for president — if there is another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, such as the Fort Hood massacre by a Muslim fundamentalist Army major, or the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. passenger jet by a Nigerian Islamist, and Mr. Obama does not respond by scrapping his soft approach to terrorism, which includes treating alien enemy combatants as common criminals entitled to civilian court trials, lawyers, and plea bargains.”

Does some significant portion of the public that supported Obama in 2008 now feel buyer’s remorse?  Undoubtedly.  Does Clinton feel marginalized as Secretary of State?  Almost certainly yes.  Did she campaign in part on the argument that she was better prepared than Obama to prosecute the war on terror and to conduct foreign policy more generally (remember that early morning phone call?)  Yes she did.  And does it appear that she has taken a harder line on several key foreign policy issues than Obama?   Well, yes, if leaks regarding her views on Iran and the war in Afghanistan can be believed.

Will all this be enough to trigger a primary challenge?  I doubt it.  To begin, the odds of wresting the party nomination from a sitting president are not good.  The last two serious challenges occurred in 1992, when Pat Buchanan challenged President George Bush the Elder for the Republican nomination, and in 1980, when Ted Kennedy ran against President Jimmy Carter.  Both challenges were triggered by perceptions that the incumbent presidents were vulnerable – perceptions confirmed when both Carter and Bush went on to lose in the general election.  But neither Buchanan nor Kennedy came close to unseating the president, although Kennedy took his fight to the Convention.  And both were later accused, unfairly in my view, for weakening the incumbent in his general election fight.  It takes a pretty hefty ego to think one can buck those odds, or risk the huge backlash if the effort fails and Obama then goes on to lose the general election in 2012.

There is a second reason why I don’t think Clinton will challenge Obama – it strikes me as out of character for her.  I don’t sense that she possesses the all-consuming “fire in the belly” that is necessary to take up a challenge that will be sure to trigger all the animosity toward her that we saw in the 2008 race: the feeling that she has a sense of entitlement, the resentment toward Bill, and the latent gender issues that invariably will bubble up during the campaign.

For what it is worth (and I don’t think it is worth anything) she has denied any interest in running for President again, ever. If Hillary still harbors presidential ambitions, however, it makes more sense, I think, to wait until 2016.   If she is planning on challenging Obama in 2012, however, a triggering event might be a Republican tsunami in the 2010 midterms.  If the Democrats lose control of the Senate, and a significant number – say, 40 or more – seats in the House, and if the economy continues to shed jobs, and there is no health care legislation AND Obama’s approval ratings hover in the lower 40% range, Clinton might yet summon the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits once again, arguing that she is compelled to do so to rescue the Democrat Party.  Her slogan?  “This time vote for real change!”

P.S.  In my initial post on Hillary as Secretary of State, I set the over-under on her tenure at four years, and asked you to predict when she would resign.  Several of you cited Obama’s first State of the Union as the date of departure – sorry! No t-shirt for you!