There is a lot of bitterness out there. And it’s not coming from rural voters in Appalachia. There are legions of Hillary Clinton supporters—from Emily List activists to NARAL members to middle-aged female fans—who do not like the impending outcome of the Democratic primary.
They are downright angry about some of the language employed by the media to describe Clinton, and at what they see as the media’s undue haste in shoving her out of the race. And they don’t like some of the phrases tossed around by Barack Obama (“Sweetie”; “You’re likable enough, Hillary”) either.
The major newspapers now regale us with stories about the many women, especially but not limited to the Geraldine Ferraro generation, who threaten to withhold their votes from Obama. Such angry and disillusioned female Democrats seem, for the moment, to be everywhere.
But even if we accept that this phenomenon is real (even if encouraged by Clinton herself), the question going forward is this: Will these voters will really turn tail on the Democratic nominee and vote for John McCain?
Recent history suggests that the idea of a mass female defection to the Republican side is more than a little unlikely: In 2000 Al Gore carried women voters 54-43 percent, and John Kerry carried them 51-48.
More significant, though, is the fact that John McCain doesn’t appear to have much innate ability to appeal to female voters in the way, for example, Bill Clinton did. McCain doesn’t have the patience to feel anyone’s pain, and he would, if left to his own devices, talk 24/7 about foreign policy rather than issues, like health care, that resonate strongly with women voters.
So is it at all reasonable to believe, even if lots of women are mad at Obama right now, that McCain is the guy to reel them in?
The answer is, it depends on what he does. Though it may not be apparent just yet, McCain will have a few tools at his disposal to at least boost his share of the female vote in a head-to-head race against Obama.
First, many of the Clinton supporters as well as independent and non-primary-voting women, particularly older women, liked and agreed with her argument about experience. For older women who spent lives in the workplace toiling to move up the ladder, the sight of a young, handsome opponent bypassing their standard-bearer was eerily reminiscent of a dozen slights and inequities they suffered.
Sure, “change” beat out “experience” in the electorate overall, but among older women, preparation, experience, qualifications and knowledge still count. McCain may be a more palatable alternative for those voters who, for example, bought the message of the “3 a.m” TV ad and concluded that Obama is simply too untested to protect their family’s safety.
Second, Clinton’s greatest successes came when she became the pugnacious populist—railing against a president who considered middle-class voters invisible, vilifying the insurance industry and lambasting the lobbyists.
McCain is never going to reinvent himself as the second coming of John Edwards, but he has begun to attack Wall Street (in the housing crisis), go after drug companies (by favoring drug re-importation) and skewer CEO’s for big severance packages. All of this causes fiscal conservatives to break out in a cold sweat. But it does amplify his image as the feisty, take-no-guff fighter that Clinton appealed to when she “never gave up and never gave in.”
And finally, some of the Clinton female voters are culturally conservative, the remnants of Reagan Democrats, who looked askance at Obama as an out-of-touch elitist. McCain, although reluctant to talk up issues on the social conservatives’ wish list, has a culturally conservative profile to go along with his record as a war hero. And in some key swing states, McCain will be pitching to the same women who noticed that their children had better bowling scores than Obama.
So McCain is not without tactical options to capitalize on what is, for now, a vulnerability for Obama.
In the end, most Democratic-leaning females aren’t about to jettison their policy views for a conservative curmudgeon, no matter how miffed they are at Obama. But the danger for Obama remains: In a close election, it would take only tens of thousands of disaffected—and motivated—women in swing states to make the difference.