Debunking Obama’s Hillary Problem

Who says that disgruntled women will cost Obama the election?

“It’s no longer just about Hillary,” proclaims the headline of Froma Harrop’s report in the Providence Journal on the founding of a new, supposedly more independent, feminist organization. Harrop takes the cadre of “high-powered Clinton supporters” who met last week to create The New Agenda as emblematic of the oft-invoked women so angry about Hillary Clinton’s primary defeat that they will not vote for Barack Obama.

While there is undoubtedly a core of women loyal to Clinton amongst the Democratic activists and major donors who are considering withholding their vote from Obama, there is scant evidence that he’s suffering from a feminist backlash. Harrop bases her argument on findings from a poll released earlier this month from the Lifetime television network: “Many remain scandalized by the sexist attacks on Clinton during the recent campaign. A stubborn 18 percent of Clinton’s female voters vow to back McCain, according to a poll for Lifetime television networks.” The Lifetime poll also finds that Obama has failed to lock up a majority of female support, with 10 percent still undecided.

But back in June, when the primary wounds were the most raw, a Washington Post/ABC poll made a startling finding. Yes, 37 percent of Clinton supporters were considering voting for McCain or staying home on election day. However, this was not because anger about the campaign’s gender dynamics. “Obama is not disproportionately weaker among Clinton supporters who comprised her core groups, such as women, seniors and working-class whites,” it found. “Instead he’s losing those who value strength and experience over change, who doubt Obama’s qualifications and who see him as a risky choice—mirroring his challenges among all adults more broadly.”

What’s more, Obama is not performing poorly among women. The recent Quinnipiac poll gives Obama a more commanding lead than does the Lifetime survey, showing him beating McCain amongst women by 53 percent to 39 percent, consistent with the lead he has held all summer. This is far, far better than Senator John Kerry’s margin amongst women against President Bush in 2004, when he took 51 percent of the female vote to Bush’s 48 percent.

Of course, discontent amongst activists and major donors is a real story. But the angry-women-will-sink-Obama myth is yet another example of the media confusing activist opinion with public opinion in general. And public opinion generally defies such a simple—if dramatic—storyline.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.