Obama’s problems with women are at least partly attributable to the long primary campaign against Clinton, which has alienated some of Clinton’s female supporters. According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of women who supported Clinton had a favorable opinion of Obama in March, but that figure dropped to just 43% in May. With the nomination race coming to a close, Obama needs to reach out to these women; but how can he go about repairing his image among women who were so invested in Hillary Clinton’s campaign to become the first female president? Some have suggested that the choice of a female running mate would be an important symbolic gesture that would help Obama gain support from women. While a female running mate (perhaps even Clinton herself) would go a long way toward helping Obama with women, the most important weapon Obama has for tackling this problem is substance, not symbolism. Obama needs to emphasize issue that are important to women and delineate how his views differ from McCain’s when it comes to these concerns.
My research examining dozens of campaigns over several years has indicated a clear pattern: when Democratic candidates know that they need a good showing among women to win a race, they turn to a set of issues that help them attract that support: education, health care, and child care. Democrats seeking support from women emphasize these issues because they tend to be particularly important to women and women’s views on these issues place them much closer to the Democratic Party. As a result, when these issues become a significant part of the campaign agenda, women are much more likely to vote Democratic and the electoral prospects for Democratic candidates improve markedly.
So far, the debate between Obama and McCain has centered on the economy and foreign policy. To These issues are certainly important, but issues like education, child care, and health care are especially salient to women and, so far, those issues have largely taken a back seat in the general election campaign. If Obama wants to improve his standing with women, he needs to talk to women about the issues they want to hear about, drawing clear differences between what an Obama presidency would accomplish for women and what a McCain presidency would mean for them. If not, he may very well fail to attract the overwhelming support from women that he needs to win in November.
I actually wrote most of this post yesterday. Then, today, I noticed that in his first event as the presumptive nominee, Obama was standing at a podium behind a sign I had not seen him use before. Look for him to push the health care issue early and often in this campaign; it is one issue where he can win over a lot of those women who may currently be on the fence.