There has been much reporting and commentary in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania primary about Sen. Barack Obama's failure to "close the...
WASHINGTON — There has been much reporting and commentary in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania primary about Sen. Barack Obama’s failure to “close the deal” with white voters.
But an analysis of Pennsylvania results indicates that Obama’s trouble may not be so much with whites — working class or otherwise — but with white women. And their overwhelming preference for Sen. Hillary Rodham 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 female 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 nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. Obama’s perceived weakness with the white working class, Bositis said, 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,” Bositis said.
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White women, according to exit polls, made up 46 percent of those voting Tuesday, 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, exit polls found, 14 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate were women who said 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 9.3 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 and good.
The bad news is that white female voters, who exercise power in the primaries because of their relatively high turnout, continue to rally behind Clinton. They could 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 Sen. John McCain in November.
Instead, his poor fortunes with white women may be of a piece with Clinton’s dismal showing with black voters, male and female. If Clinton hasn’t been able to compete 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 female voters as he attempts to end the candidacy of the person who would become the first female president.
Despite current hard feelings, Bositis said, Obama would better McCain among female voters — who have been trending Democratic for many years — in the general election, just as most black voters ultimately would vote for Clinton if she were the nominee.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, who has been working hard for Clinton as head of the NOW political-action committee, agreed.
“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.
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 U.S. 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.
But polls in Pennsylvania and nationally did not seem to record a 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 a pre-election Temple Poll, which completed its surveying April 9, political scientist Michael Hagen found that white men liked Obama better than they liked Clinton, although it was 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 younger than 30.
“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,” Hagen said. “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 also may 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,” Gandy of the NOW said.
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.”