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Commentary: Will Hillary's supporters embrace Barack?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 8, 2008 - Hillary Clinton was the first serious woman contender for a presidential nomination. During a long and tortuous campaign, she was a solid favorite of women Democrats, particularly among older women.

Reasons for this support may vary: the voter could be a fan of Hillary, an admirer of the Clinton presidency, or could agree on issues such as health care. Not least, many wanted to see a woman in the White House. If Clinton had been elected president, the ultimate glass ceiling would have broken and a balm would have helped many women who have endured discrimination in the workforce, the judicial system or education.

Such discrimination is real and persistent. Women continue to earn less than men at the same jobs. They have not penetrated the ranks of governance or corporate America in numbers equal to their presence in the population. Harassment is still common, as employees of New York City's fashionable Tavern on the Green restaurant proved only days ago.

This is not to say that considerable progress has not been made, but sexism has been a factor for many women. And the older the woman, the more likely she has been affected.

When Sens. Obama and Clinton campaigned together in Unity, NH, the press found inconsolable Clinton fans in the crowd -- women who said they would vote for John McCain instead of Barack Obama. Their bitterness was palpable. The prize that seemed inevitable in 2007 had drifted from their reach.

They were critical of Obama, his campaign and the media. From the jokes of Letterman and Leno to the callousness of some cable newsmen, they kept seeing sexism. Clinton voters who see the campaign and its coverage as a reflection of their own experience of less-than-equal treatment will find it especially hard to wait for another shot at the main prize. Their chance, they seem to believe, had passed and they might not live long enough to see another viable female candidate for president.

Women hold 16 seats in the U.S. Senate, 72 in the U.S. House of Representatives and 10 governorships. This representation is by no mean proportional to population, but is certainly higher than 30 years ago and indicates that another serious female candidate for president could rise from these ranks.

Still, some feel that another woman candidate would evoke the strains of sexism from commentators and comics that offended many of Clinton's supporters. The realities of 24-7 coverage affect all presidential candidates now and will not cease any time soon. The monster has to be fed.

While some of the women who supported Hillary Clinton will not vote for the Democratic nominee in 2008, they might consider several reasons to do so. These include:

Policy congruence. There is very little difference between the positions of Obama and Clinton on many issues. For example, Clinton's health plan is more encompassing than Obama's but the latter provides far greater coverage than McCain's. Similarly, on the war in Iraq and energy policy, Obama's and Clinton's views are highly correlated, while McCain's differ greatly and are closer to those of President George W. Bush.

Appointments to the Supreme Court. Several justices are aged or infirm. The next president should fill at least two vacancies. Only one additional vote is needed to overturn Roe v. Wade. McCain has pledged to choose justices like John Roberts and Antonin Scalia, people who do not support reproductive rights.

How big is the disappointment among Clinton supporters? A poll for The Wall Street Journal in mid-June found that, among women who had voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, 61 percent said they preferred Obama and only 19 percent favored McCain. In a close election, however, that 19 percent becomes very important.

The defection of some Clinton voters is understandable, particularly given the grueling campaign that ended in failure. The extent of Sen. Clinton's campaign effort on behalf of Obama could influence some women to vote Democratic. In fact, recent poll results reported on CNN show less defection to McCain but a number of women Clinton voters who say they will not go to the polls at all. This could hurt Obama as well. The campaign will affect the final results; but for a core group of Hillary supporters, this election already may be over.

Lana Stein, St. Louis, is professor emerita of political science, University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

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