Commentary: Can Hillary woo women?

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 2, 2007

By Bonnie Erbe

Scripps Howard News Service

So Hillary’s “in” for now. But can she win and, most importantly, can she win votes from women? Her announcement last week drew the expected scads of media coverage, but there’s been very little media discussion of perhaps the most important question swirling around her campaign: Can the first female candidate with a serious shot at winning the White House garner the votes of female voters?

The answer is nothing less than pivotal. According to the Web site, ” … women are 52 percent of our population, 54 percent of the registered vote and usually between 55 percent and 56 percent of actual turnout.”

Of course, feminists, liberals and progressive Democratic women will sign on with her candidacy. Any politician with her credentials could never expect, much less try, to win support for staunch Republicans or conservatives. But can she even draw middle-of-the-road, fulltime homemakers (an important piece of the electoral puzzle) and swing or independent women into the “Hillary” camp?

Some of the most virulent opposition to Senator Clinton I’ve heard personally comes from voters in this group. I’ve heard some of them say they detest her because she stayed with a philandering husband. Others say they see her as opportunistic, or don’t trust her after Whitewater and an old allegation of insider trading. But there’s a bigger issue many of these women don’t want to address: Does she threaten their raison d’etre? She’s a self-supporting career woman who lives a very separate life from that of her spouse (some would say, too separate) and who doesn’t depend on her husband for financial support or personal identity.

The timing of Senator Clinton’s run, however, could translate into an unanticipated lucky break with women voters. Recent demographic changes have boosted the percentage of single American women to historic proportions and that is reflected in their representation within the electorate as well. In 2000, 19 million single women voted. That rose to 27 million in 2004. And if current trends continue, 32 million single women could turn out in 2008. This group, financially less well-off than married women, are nonetheless less threatened by Senator Clinton’s independence. With lower incomes, they are less likely to be able to afford health care and therefore appreciate her advocacy for increased health care accessibility. This group, whether divorced, widowed or never married, also voted Democratic by a two-to-one margin in 2004 and again in 2006, even though President Bush won the married white women’s vote in 2004 (and in 2000).

I’m not persuaded the American public as a whole is ready for a female president. What they tell pollsters and what they do once cloaked inside the privacy of the voting booth can be two very different things. Most polls taken the last few years show between 60 and 80 percent of Americans claim to believe the country is “ready” for a woman president. But if between 20 and 40 percent of voters are not ready for any woman to be president, what does that say about us as a nation?

Are there some Americans who’d give a woman candidate preference over a man? An ABC-Washington Post poll taken last month says yes. Twenty-three percent of women voters told those pollsters they are more likely to vote for another woman. Only 9 percent of men said they’d give a female candidate extra points.

I give Senator Clinton major kudos for softening her image in her series of online chats this week. She was seated on a comfy sofa, answered a good mix of questions ranging from family matters to world affairs. She appeared composed and confident. What we don’t know is how many female detractors were watching.

Perhaps she can pull off nationwide what she accomplished in New York state this past fall. She won 73 percent of the women’s vote (and 61 percent of male voters.) In that race, of course, she had no real opposition and spent as wantonly on her campaign as President Bush is spending American taxpayers’ dollars. However, if things keep getting worse in Iraq and Sen. John McCain (who supports increasing troop levels there) is her opposition, who knows; perhaps she could pull off a repeat.

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Bonnie Erbe writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.