Politics & Government

Will Clinton's gender help or hurt her?

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a campaign fundraiser.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a campaign fundraiser. Seth Wenig / AP

WASHINGTON — Even from a distance, you can tell it’s a Hillary Clinton campaign rally. It’s clear well before you see the bumper stickers on the cars or hear the speeches inside.

You can tell by the women, young and old, lined up early. Often outnumbering men by margins of 2 to 1, they come to see the first woman with a real chance of being a major party's nominee for president — and a real chance of being elected.

They talk about health care and the war. But they’re also drawn by an emotional, woman-to-woman bond summed up by one fan at an early Clinton rally in Iowa: “I feel it in the heart.”

Eight weeks before the voting starts, Clinton is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. And the prospect of her taking it and the Oval Office from what she calls the “boys’ club” of presidential politics raises the question: Will Clinton’s gender help her, hurt her or make no difference?

One possibility: a new gender gap — with a surge of women, some of them Republican, voting for her on one side, and a bloc of men lying to pollsters about their readiness to vote for a female candidate, then voting against her in the privacy of the voting booth.

Even with some history as a guide — there was an increase of women voting for female Senate and House of Representatives candidates in 1992’s “year of the woman,” for example — the stakes are higher and the votes much more difficult to predict when the presidency is at stake.

“We have no benchmark. We have no way to know,” said Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who’s written extensively on female candidates and voters.

So far, polls suggest that women are supporting Clinton more than her rivals.

In Iowa, the first state to vote next January, the New York senator now gets the support of 33 percent of women and 22.5 percent of men, according to a recent survey of likely Democratic caucus attendees by the University of Iowa.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois gets 26.5 percent of women and 26.7 percent of men. And former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina gets 16.8 percent of women and 25 percent of men.

Clinton aides think her support from women could grow in a general election against a male Republican candidate.

Women represent as much as 54 percent of the vote. Clinton pollster Mark Penn said recently that 94 percent of young women are more likely to vote if a woman is on the ballot. As many as 20 million unmarried women sat out the 2004 election.

“Even a 10 percent increase in turnout among women on top of the current polls would give Hillary a significant edge in a general election, opening up a wide number of states,” Penn said.

He also told reporters at a recent breakfast that the “emotional element” of a female president could draw as many as one out of four Republican women to vote for Clinton, a crossover that would give her a better shot at winning such swing states as Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia.

Independent analysts also see some potential crossover appeal.

“There is a possibility that Clinton could attract moderate Republican and independent women,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “I’m not sure the numbers will be as high as Clinton thinks, but there could be some crossover.”

Some Republican women conceded that voting for a female presidential candidate is appealing, but said they thought Clinton had much less appeal than Penn predicted.

“The idea of a woman president in general is emotionally appealing,” said Karen Hanretty, an aide to former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, another presidential candidate. “But what do Republican women have in common with Hillary Clinton? I don’t think there would be a significant number of people who would vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman.”

There’s also the possibility of a backlash among female voters against male candidates who attack Clinton, even though attacks are normal in politics.

That happened in the 2000 New York Senate race, when Republican Rick Lazio walked across a debate stage to confront Clinton face to face. And it might have happened this fall, when her male rivals and two male moderators challenged her in a recent debate.

Clinton aides and supporters called it unfair, noting the lineup of men against a woman. That, however, could undermine the image Clinton has cultivated as a tough-as-nails, Margaret Thatcher-like leader for a nation at war.

Kate Michelman, a feminist leader who supports Edwards, accused Clinton of "trying to have it both ways."

"At one minute, the strong woman ready to lead; the next, she's the woman under attack, disingenuously playing the victim card," Michelman said. "It is not presidential."

Yet it did strike some women as an attack on a woman, not just on a presidential candidate.

“It’s not a free shot,” said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. “It’s not true that all of these women will take it as a neutral act, these kinds of attacks."

Yet for any gender advantage Clinton might have, there remains the question of how many Americans will vote for a woman.

Large majorities tell pollsters that they'd have no problem voting for a woman. But minority politicians have faced the same landscape, only to find that their support dropped on Election Day, with some people having voted differently than what they’d said.

“There is some piece of the population that will work exactly like that, people who will say I’m supporting her or will support a woman, and then will vote the other way,” said Dolan at the University of Wisconsin.

“That’s just one of the pieces that make this really hard. Until people get into the polling place, there’s no way to know how it’s going to play out.”