By Jonathan Tilove
April 24, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the Pennsylvania primary there has been much reporting and commentary about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s failure to “close the deal” with white voters.
But an analysis of the Pennsylvania results indicates that Obama’s trouble may not be so much with white or white working-class voters generally, but with white women. And their overwhelming preference for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton may have less to do with any resistance to the prospect of a first black president, and more to do with their powerful desire to see the equally history-making election of a first woman president.
“If you really look at the numbers, it’s clear that this is a gender impact,” said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. Obama’s perceived weakness with the white working class, Bositis explained, is largely an artifact of Clinton’s powerful appeal to women, who comprise the greater number of working-class voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
“The media seems to want to read race into a lot of things that are going on when it may actually have little to do with it,” said Bositis.
White women, according to exit polls, made up 46 percent of those voting in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, and Clinton carried them 68 percent to 32 percent.
By contrast, she carried white men by 57 percent to 43 percent, and they made up 33 percent of those voting.
Moreover, the exit polls found, 14 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate were women who said that the candidates’ gender was important in deciding how to vote. Clinton won that group by 77 percent to 23 percent. Bositis said that means those voters accounted for 7.6 percentage points of her overall advantage over Obama, or 82 percent of her total victory margin of 9.2 percentage points.
Yet, rather than being read as evidence of a Clinton strength, these results mostly have been interpreted as a worrying sign for Obama’s ultimate general election chances.
For Obama, Bositis’ analysis is both bad news and good news.
The bad news is that white women voters, who exercise outsized power in the primaries because of their relatively high turnout, continue to rally behind Clinton despite the long odds against her securing the nomination. They will likely continue to frustrate Obama’s efforts to end the contest before the close of the primary season in June.
The good news for Obama is that his defeat in Pennsylvania, and his decisive loss among white voters Tuesday, may not indicate, as some observers and Clinton partisans have contended, a fatal weakness with white voters that could doom his chances against Arizona Sen. John McCain in November.
Instead, his poor fortunes with white women may be of a piece with Hillary Clinton’s dismal showing with black voters, male and female. If Clinton just hasn’t been able to compete effectively for black votes with a man poised to become the first black president, so too Obama, to a lesser extent, may have trouble with white women voters as he attempts to close out the candidacy of the person who would become the first woman president in history.
Bositis said that, despite current hard feelings, just as most black voters would ultimately vote for Clinton in the fall were she the nominee, so too would Obama best McCain among female voters, who have been trending Democratic for many years.
Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women, who has been working hard for Clinton as head of the NOW political action committee, which has endorsed her candidacy, agreed.
Whoever prevails on the Democratic side, she said, “there will be some healing to be done — there’s more than a little bad blood on both sides.” But, she said, she can’t imagine many Democratic women deserting to McCain, who in her view has “nothing but rotten positions.”
The tendency to view the Pennsylvania vote through the lens of race might be understandable.
As Obama has been closing in on becoming the first black major party nominee in American history, his campaign has been tossed by racial controversy surrounding the inflammatory sermons of his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and a speech Obama delivered in Philadelphia attempting to place the Wright controversy in a broader context of race in America.
A subsequent controversy arose over remarks he made in California that were criticized as being condescending toward whites in small-town Pennsylvania.
It was widely presumed that these controversies would have a powerful and perhaps debilitating effect on Obama’s standing with white, and especially working-class white voters (defined as those with less than a college degree).
But polls in Pennsylvania and nationally did not seem to record any profound negative shift in Obama’s fortunes. And one would presume if there were the makings of a racial backlash against Obama, it would not be less pronounced among white men than white women.
In the pre-election Temple Poll, which completed its surveying April 9, political scientist Michael Hagen found that white men liked Obama a little bit better than they liked Clinton, though it was very close. But white women had a far more favorable view of Clinton than of Obama. The only category of white women who preferred Obama were those under 30. But Clinton was far more popular with older white women, and those who would be counted as working class.
In post-election reflection, Hagen said: “I think a lot of people who’ve been thinking about this race in Pennsylvania have been so attentive to the obvious excitement of the Obama candidacy, we may have underestimated to some degree the excitement of Sen. Clinton’s supporters. It is an historic candidacy, after all.”
For Obama, Pennsylvania was a particularly tough state because its population is whiter, far older and more working class than the national average — perfect for Clinton, who throughout the primaries has done better with older voters, working-class white voters and women.
And Clinton’s support among women may also have been stoked by dismissive treatment in the news media of her candidacy, and calls for her to quit.
“Certainly the media coverage has gotten some hackles up,” said NOW’s Gandy.
Or, as Ann Lewis, a senior campaign adviser to Clinton, put it: “There is a real anger among women at what people see as a pattern of trivialization of Hillary, of making jokes at her expense and minimizing her seriousness. And every time they see something like that, boy it reminds them of the times in their own lives when they’ve faced the same thing.”