Palin, Women and the Future of the Republican Party

When a political party loses a presidential election as decisively as the Republicans did this year, party members inevitable engage in a very public spectacle of playing the blame game. Amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth, they exchange recriminations, dissect candidate choices, replay campaign strategies, and generally proclaim that the party’s very existence is in jeopardy unless some dramatic changes are made.  As I noted in an earlier posting, it was only four years ago that Democrats openly worried that they had become a permanent minority party, geographically marginalized to urban centers on the coasts along with decaying Midwest rust-belt cities, with a constituency consisting primarily of cultural and intellectual snobs (i.e., college professors!), African-Americans and labor union leaders.

Now it is the Republicans turn to despair. They are now, if media reports are to be believed, the geographically isolated party, their support limited to the South and Great Plains, and their constituency reduced to the famous bible-thumping, gun toting rural white voters. Media stories are replete with accounts of battles between cultural conservatives, small government fiscal conservatives, and social libertarians for the soul of the Republican Party.

What are we to make of this?  Accounts of the death of the Republican Party, I would suggest, are greatly exaggerated. I see little evidence that the 2008 election presages an era in which the Republicans are destined to wander in the political wilderness for 40 years any more than the 2004 results foretold a similar story for the Democrats. In part, this is because Obama won not on the basis of any particular set of ideas or overriding political or governing philosophy so much as on his ability to present himself as an agent of “change.” As I’ll show in another post, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee, she likely would have won by a similar margin of victory.  In short, this was a Democratic year not because of what Democrats stand for, but because of what the Republican administration did for the previous 8 years. There was no single issue or cluster of issues separating the two parties ideologically in a way that caused a fundamental shift in voter allegiances, as is usually the case with a realigning election.  This was not an election that turned on an issue equivalent to slavery, or currency based on gold or silver, or the role of government in the free market.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that the political winds will necessarily reverse themselves again in four years to favor Republicans. The biggest obstacle to regaining the presidency, I argue, is the failure to attract women voters. In 2008, according to exit polls, women voted overwhelmingly for Obama over McCain, 56-43%. In contrast, the two candidates essentially split men.  This is a gain among women voters of 10% since 2004, and is the largest gender-based differential in a presidential election since 1996, when women supported Clinton 54-38% over Bob Dole (with another 7% siphoned off to a 3rd party candidate). (To be sure, Obama also gained 10% among men from Kerry’s performance in 2004, but it only brought him even with McCain among these voters).  It is also the 5th presidential election in a row, and 7th of the last 10, in which Republicans received less than 50% of the women’s vote. Of perhaps greater concern, the 2008 results reverse the trend evident in the two previous presidential elections, in which George Bush, largely on the basis of security concerns, had cut into the traditional Democrat edge among women, gaining 8% between 2000 and 2004.

The media has made much of Obama’s gains among young (18-29 year old) and African-American voters. But African-Americans comprised only 13% of voters in the last election (about a 2% increase over 2004), and the 18-29 year olds were but 18% of the vote. In contrast, women constitute more than half (53%) of voters (I’m ignoring overlap among the demographic categories for the moment). They thus represent the single biggest voting bloc (assuming, of course, that women can be viewed as a voting bloc – more on that below) in the electorate.

What can Republicans do to cut into this gender gap? First, it is important to realize that the gap is not due to party differences regarding what the media often describe as “women’s” issues: abortion and reproduction rights, equal pay and workplace discrimination, child care, etc.  Instead, the difference is primarily due to Democrat’s greater willingness to support government action to protect the less powerful in society: children, the poor, the less educated, etc.  Women, more than men, are motivated to vote based on these issues.

If Democrats “own” these issues, however, as voting in recent presidential elections suggests they do, might the Republicans cut into this gap through other means?  Might they play their own version of identity politics by running a woman at the top of their ticket in 2012?  And, if so, isn’t Sarah Palin the ideal candidate?

Yes and No. Yes, it could be that by running a woman at the top of the ticket, Republicans might make some inroads among women voters. But it’s not clear to me that Palin is the ideal candidate to do so, at least not based on the 2008 results. Those of you who have followed my posts throughout the campaign season remember that Palin’s selection by McCain to be his vice presidential nominee prompted an initial surge in support among women voters for the McCain ticket. Indeed, it was the only moment in the entire general election that McCain actually led Obama in polls. But in the end, Palin proved to be a very polarizing figure, in large part, I would argue, because the McCain campaign used her in the traditional vice presidential candidate role – as partisan attack dog.  Although she helped bring the social conservatives back into the Republican fold, her strident attacks on Obama undercut, I think, her ability to reach out to disaffected Clinton supporters, particularly women who in the end voted in overwhelming numbers for Obama.

This is not to say that Palin’s choice was a mistake – in fact, the exit polls suggest the opposite: McCain rolled the dice and it paid off, although the payoff was perhaps less than it might have been. Thus, 60% of respondents said Palin was not fully qualified to be president, and they went for Obama 82-16%.  Thirty-eight percent said she was qualified, and they voted for McCain 91-8%.  (This is almost the mirror image of Biden’s numbers; 66% said he was qualified, and 32% said he was not). However, as I suggested back in September when Palin was chosen, vice presidential picks are rarely consequential in terms of their impact on the presidential vote.  Biden’s selection, for instance, appears to have had almost no impact on Obama’s support.  However, Palin’s pick proved more influential than most previous V.P. picks (certainly more than Biden’s); fully 60% of voters said it influenced their vote. Of these,  7% of voters said McCain’s choice of Palin was the most important factor in how they voted, and they broke exactly along the lines of the overall presidential vote: 52-47% for Obama.  Fully 33% of voters said Palin’s selection was an important, if not the most important, factor in their vote, and they went for McCain in much greater numbers – 52-47% – than did voters as a whole. Another 20% said it was a minor factor in their vote, and they also went for McCain by 2 to 1, 66-33%. In short, among those voters (60% of the total number of voters) who mention Palin’s selection as influencing their vote, McCain did much better, winning this group 56-43%, while losing those who did not consider Palin’s selection at all when voting by 65-33%.  In other words, when voters factored the Palin choice into their vote, they were more likely to support McCain.  Obama won only among the 7% who said Palin was the most important influence on their vote, and even here he did no better than he did among voters overall.

In short, the exit polls numbers indicate that Palin was a net benefit to McCain; voters who used her selection as a factor in their vote were much more likely to vote for McCain than those who did not.  (Of course, we always have to be careful about inferring causality when identifying correlations of this type.)  However, even if we accept that Palin helped bolster McCain’s support – and the exit poll evidence is consistent with this claim – it doesn’t appear to be the case that she boosted his support disproportionately among women.  Keep in mind that Obama’s gain among women was no bigger than his gain among men, compared to 2004, so it is possible that Palin’s impact was a wash, in terms of gender.

Unfortunately, exit polls numbers do not provide data regarding the breakdown of support for Palin by gender.  They do reveal, however, some differences among women voters that suggest what Palin must do to win back women voters in 2012.  To begin, McCain did about equally poorly among women with children as among those without (57-41 Obama compared to 56-43%)  Interestingly, McCain won the father’s vote 50-48% – men without children went for Obama 51-48%. When we look at marital status and the vote, we see almost no difference between married men and married women – except among married men and women with kids.  Married fathers support McCain, while married mothers back Obama.  However, McCain lost “working women” badly, 60-39%, while just about breaking even in the “all other women” category (70% of voters) by 50-48%.  (Keep in mind that if we control for race, however, we see that McCain actually won white women by 7% – still a far smaller margin than his winning margin of 16% among white men.)

What does this suggest for 2012?  That the “women’s” vote is not as monolithic as one might think.  In fact, there are differences among women based on marriage, children and work status.  This suggests that if Palin is to gain traction at the national level during the next four years, then, she is going to have to broaden her appeal by playing up her hockey Mom credentials to win over mothers with children, while downplaying her social views that may cost her support among educated, single working women.  It may be, however, that Republicans would do far better by choosing a candidate – man or woman – who can make a credible case that her or his policies on issues like health care, education and the economy align more closely with women voters’ views on these issues than they would by playing identity politics.

Or they could nominate Condi Rice!


  1. Matt – your last paragraph is the key to me, as it seems that appealing to voters by policy position is a lot more effective than simply matching gender. This seems like a researchable question at the governor/senate level where there’s a lot more data – how has a candidate’s gender correlated with voter demographics? Are female candidates innately more likely to appeal to women more than male candidates with similar policy positions? If we assume that the D/R gender gap (when dealing with male candidates) is based primarily on the policy issues you mention, we should be able to see how much variance occurs when one of the candidates is female. Do you have any references on this?

    My gut says that the policy issues hold significantly more sway than the candidate’s gender, and there are a good proportion of women who will backlash against a female candidate whom they disagree with or don’t respect for fear of having a “symbolic” candidacy tainted. And to win the mother vote, playing up “hockey mom” creds seems far less successful than catering to the key issues that moms care about: education, child care, health care, and equitable labor policies.

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