Magazine article Politics Magazine

5 "Truths" about Women Voters: (That Are Flat-Out False)

Magazine article Politics Magazine

5 "Truths" about Women Voters: (That Are Flat-Out False)

Article excerpt

Except for phonetically, I never did figure out what "W Is for Women" was supposed to mean. But since this year is purportedly all about women voters, it's time we figured it out: Can a Woman for Rudy ever find happiness as an Obama Mama? And is every woman who doesn't hate Hillary Clinton inclined to vote for her? If I learned anything from my 18 months of interviews with women across the country, it's that--like selling magazine subscriptions and talking on television--running a winning campaign is harder than it looks. So to all of my fellow second-guessers who think that what women (voters) want is blatantly obvious, I say: No, it isn't. No matter how many people write otherwise, sometimes the dots do not connect. Not neatly, anyway.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

My interviews with women of all ages, races, tax brackets and points of view, in 20 states, were the unscientific opposite of a poll. I asked almost no questions--I wanted to know what they were thinking about, not what I thought they should be thinking about--and then spent hours listening to their highly enlightening non-answers. These conversations certainly brought home how difficult actual polling is, not because voters lie but because their inclinations are so complicated and contradictory. Not to mention unexamined. In Washington, if you've run into someone at the dry cleaner twice, you probably have a pretty good idea which way he leans politically. But out in America, politics might be the new sex--unmentionable in polite company even now, and thus chronically untested and subject to revision. And retired or in college, wealthy or without a permanent address, the women I spoke to convinced me that much of what we think we know about their behavior in the ballot box is flat-out false.

Myth #1:

Women Automatically Prefer the Female Candidate.

Theoretically, sure, all things being equal, women favor the female in the race. Voting is such a complicated calculus, though, that they never are equal. The idea that "if you look like me, then sister, I'm with you" is so widely assumed that a recent New York Times story registered surprise that Barack Obama was even bothering to pitch to women voters as such: "In the intensifying battle for the votes of Democratic women, Senator Barack Obama's campaign is trying to turn years of feminist thinking on its head and argue that the best candidate for women may, in fact, be a man." (As a thought exercise that might or might not prove whether we've come further on gender than on race in this country, ponder how likely we are to read that Clinton is trying to turn years of anything on its head by arguing that the best candidate for people of color is, in fact, white.) Yet significant numbers of women from left to right continue to express skepticism about Clinton, particularly on the not-at-all trifling matter of likeability.

Women across the political spectrum consistently say they like the idea of a female president, but that does not mean that support for a woman is a given. That's such a simplistic view, some women find it insulting. Which is why explicit gender-based appeals are a turnoff, for younger women in particular.

The equally false flip side of the assumption that women naturally favor other women is that when they don't, it's because they're self-hating: "We're always hardest on our own." On the contrary, Obama and John Edwards' female backers murmur earnestly about wishing they liked Clinton better than they do; they profess to be feeling guilty--to the point that the next over-the-top anti-Hillary e-mail they receive could be the one that turns them into her supporters.

Myth #2:

Conservative Women Just Aren't Ready for a Woman in the White House.

Though I did meet some strongly religious women who see a biblical injunction against women in even secular leadership roles, theirs was the minority view. Right-leaning women regularly mention Condoleezza Rice as someone they'd love to see run: "For a black woman to rise the way she has? …

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