Thursday, June 5, 2008

How Obama Can Win Back Women

As Obama wraps up his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he faces a serious problem with women, a constituency that has been central to every Democratic presidential candidate’s electoral success since 1980. According to the latest poll from the Pew Research Center, only 47% of women currently say that they would vote for Obama over McCain (42% support McCain). This figure has to be a major concern for the Obama campaign. Every Democratic presidential candidate since 1980 has done better among women than their Republican competition. In fact, Democratic candidates do not need to simply win a majority of women, but they need to win them by a significant margin. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote because he carried women by a margin of 54-43%, an 11% advantage. In 2004, John Kerry’s advantage among women shrunk to just 3%, the smallest advantage for a Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis in 1988. Had Kerry carried women with the same percentage of the vote that Gore had in 2000, Kerry would have cruised to victory. Instead, Kerry lost the election by more than 2 million votes. Obama is currently faring worse among women than Kerry was at this same stage in 2004. No matter how many new voters Obama brings into the electorate, his prospects in the general election will ultimately depend on how he fares with women voters.

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.

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ADDENDUM:

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.

1 comment:

scott mcclurg said...

Perhaps my memory if failing me -- a distinct possibility -- but I seem to recall reading a piece by Jan Box-Steffensmeier and two others suggesting that economic issues were important for understanding the gender gap in partisanship. While I agree that Obama undoubtedly has to discuss the issues you've identified, I'd think that talking about economic struggles more generally should also appeal to female voters. Afterall, they already make less than their male counterparts and should be more adversely affected by inflation and high prices.