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Palin's nomination puts scrutiny on women voters -- but they defy generalization

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 6, 2008 - Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin will try to become the first female to hold that office in the United States. Will she get an extra bump from women voters?

Generalizing about women voters in any election year is a little like saying that the only difference between hockey moms and pit bulls is lipstick.

Would that be red or pink lipstick, or perhaps a more neutral shade -- say, one of the earth tones? Lancome or Maybelline? Gloss or matte finish?

This also will come as no surprise: Not every hockey mom is as pit bullish as Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin might have us believe, according to Valerie Markarian of O'Fallon, Ill., whose 7-year-old is starting his fourth season in the ice sport. Markarian said she is pleased that Palin is drawing attention to her son's sport of choice, but she finds the pit bull imagery a bit scary.

"I stay away from those hockey moms. I mean, hello, (the kids are) 7 years old," said Markarian, adding, "I can see being a pit bull if something were to happen to my son, but it's just hockey. It's just a game."

Markarian, 40, a self-described stay-at-home mom, is one of those sought-after undecided voters this election year. Although she has voted Republican in previous elections, Markarian said she is still weighing the options and is not opposed to voting Democratic. The issues that will drive her vote are tax increases, education and the environment -- not the gender of the candidates.

"I really haven't researched the candidates yet. I'm trying to get past the negativity of the campaigns," Markarian said.

In an historic year, where the nation will see either its first African-American president or woman vice president, replacing "soccer moms" with "hockey moms" in the election-year parlance really doesn't matter. And, if voting patterns hold true this year, political scientists say, Republican presidential candidate John McCain's decision to put a woman on his ticket -- a first in his party's history -- won't in itself change his chances of defeating Democratic nominee Barack Obama, despite all of the political hype and speculation to the contrary.

"We've struggled for many years to make the point that women are not monolithic. It's not correct to assume that women are standing in uniform lines, ready to salute together or vote one way," said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

That said, there have been discernible patterns in the way women and men vote – the so-called gender gap -- since the early 1980s, Mandel said. Political scientists have found the gender gap to be a difference of between 4 and 11 points in national and statewide elections, with women preferring the Democrat in larger numbers and proportions than do men. In a close election, a gender gap is likely to make a difference for the Democrat.

"As a whole, Democrats have benefited from the gender gap," Mandel said. "When the candidate on the ticket is a Democrat and a woman, there is an even larger gender gap. When the Republican candidate is a woman, there is typically no benefit from the gender gap. The gender gap is really about a partisan preference and when the Democrat is a woman, you get a kind of enthusiasm level, or spurt, on top."

Assumptions that McCain's decision to put Palin on the ticket would automatically pull women voters -- particularly the disenchanted supporters of Democratic primary candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- don't hold up historically, Mandel said, though she adds that, of course, anything is possible.

"Life changes and history changes, and we don't know in this election what's going to happen," she said.

When the dust from the political conventions settles, Mandel believes that voters will, in fact, care less about Palin's gender and personal life and more about the issues that affect their lives.

"It is unlikely, I would think, that the issues of greatest importance to voters in 2008 will have changed over the last four weeks," Mandel said. "And so we will have to get back to the discussions about the economy and the domestic issues that are related to that. Whether it's health care or people's retirement or their mortgages or their gas tanks, or job losses -- all of that set of issues connected to one another and to the economy. And, of course, there are all of the international issues that I don't think we focus on when we have kitchen-table problems."

High Interest Rates

Political scientists say it is too early to know where true independent voters will land in the November election. On the other hand, they say, McCain's selection of Palin has helped him galvanize an important segment of voters who agree with her strong conservative views, particularly her opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.         

"It was a brilliant move to mobilize evangelical Christian women who were very suspicious of McCain," said Karen O'Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. "He had to energize that base. They might have voted for him, but if it was raining, they might not turn out. Now they've got somebody who they can identify with, and they will turn out."

O'Connor said the energy surrounding Palin puts even more pressure on Obama to get young voters who supported him in the primaries to the polls on election day because they are notoriously low-turnout voters.

"But evangelical Christian women are at the polls and helping out with the campaign, going the whole nine yards for candidates. The governor's positions perfectly align with the people who were, let's say, in the Moral Majority years ago," O'Connor said.

Mandel, who attended both the Democratic and Republican conventions as an observer, said she found women GOP delegates who were already committed to voting for McCain out of of partisan loyalty, but are now enthusiastic about the ticket.

Americans on all sides of the political spectrum seem to be paying attention this election year, tuning in to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in record numbers, according to the Nielsen ratings. O'Bama's acceptance speech drew 38.3 million viewers, a record that was surpassed one week later when 38.9 million viewers watched McCain's acceptance speech.

Palin's acceptance speech drew 37.2 million viewers, 19.5 million of them women. That was 5.2 million more women viewers than watched Clinton's address to the Democrats and 6.9 million more women than watched Sen. Joe Biden's acceptance of the Democratic vice presidential nomination.

State Rep. Rachel Storch, D-University, who directed Clinton's campaign in Missouri, says Palin has little appeal to women who supported the Democratic senator. She discounts as simplistic early assumptions that McCain chose Palin to attract Clinton supporters and believes he was looking for a running mate who would not only please his political base but would also bring a different perspective.

"It's a very polarized election now," Storch said. "I think Hillary and Obama share the same progressive values. Their positions really are very similar on almost everything. So Hillary voters are voting on their values, and they're not going to abandon Obama to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket."

Storch acknowledges her own disappointment that Obama didn't choose Clinton as his running mate, but she said there is no time to cry over spilled milk with the election less than 60 days away.

"I would choose the Obama-Biden ticket any day of the week," Storch said. "But, yes, I would have loved to have seen Hillary as part of the ticket."

Mandel said that for all of the talk about disaffected Clinton supporters who refer to themselves as PUMAs (the acronym stands for Party Unity My Ass), there is no way to gauge the possible impact they might have because it difficult to assess how many of them really exist.

"PUMAs appear to be a pretty small group of women, and I don't know what they're going to do," she said. "There are many different women's groups and constituencies, but the women who support Hillary Clinton are likely to take her advice and lead. The majority are going to do that."

O'Connor believes that Clinton's candidacy paved the way for McCain to choose a woman for his ticket. "The irony is that Hillary Clinton opened up the way for a woman to be on the ticket who basically stands directly opposite her on every single issue," O'Connor said.

Charges of Sexism

A telephone poll by Rasmussen Reports taken after Palin's acceptance speech found that 58 percent of American voters held a favorable view of Palin, which is one point higher than both McCain and Obama. The governor's popularity has spurred the Obama campaign into sending its own high-profile women supporters, including Clinton, out on the trail.

"I think she's [Palin's] got a compelling story, but I assume that she wants to be treated the same ways that guys want to be treated, which means that their records are under scrutiny," Obama told reporters Friday, according to the Associated Press.

McCain's announcement of Palin sent the media rushing to find out about the unknown candidate, while the Internet was abuzz with speculation and rumor regarding the pregnancy of her 17-year-old unmarried daughter. Republican party leaders have accused Palin's critics and the media of sexism and using a double standard against the candidate.

"There were outrageous things said. She has five children, including a special needs child; therefore, she can't be vice president. I mean, how patronizing can you get," former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth told the Beacon on Thursday.

Mandel said that questions about a woman caring for her children can be viewed as sexism if they are not being asked of the male candidates. But, she said, it is also not surprising to hear voters raising those questions because care-giving for children and aging parents in the United States is still overwhelmingly in the hands of women.

"So it's a question that's based on the reality of what's happening in American family life these days," Mandel said. "The ideal would be that equal care is given on the part of men and women, but so far we haven't gotten there."

Storch believes the discussion about Palin has been rife with sexism, and she doesn't want to hear that kind of talk.

"For somebody like me, a female elected official, I was very proud to see Hillary running for president. I'm proud to see a woman on the vice presidential ticket to help break barriers, but that doesn't mean I'm going to vote for her. My perspective on this is that I admire her for being out there. I'm glad to see a woman on the ticket, and I'm going to do everything in my power to defeat her," Storch said.

"In any election there are a lot of factors at play that we can't always put our finger on," she added. "You can talk about racism affecting Obama, you could talk about sexism affecting Palin, you could talk about ageism affecting McCain. We just have to hope that the voters can rise above some of the prejudices that may be out there and make a choice that's based on values and what's right for the country and the vision of where we would like to see things headed."

Those Other Factors

Although the Palin candidacy put this week's spotlight on women voters, Mandel said there are other unanswered questions, including the impact technology will have on the election – from voters who are below the radar of traditional polling to the campaigns' outreach to Internet and cell phone users.

"And nobody is spending every day talking about race, but I think that the question about how race will affect voting patterns across the country is a big election question," Mandel said.

Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University, said voters will continue to question whether Palin has the experience to be vice president, particularly in light of McCain's age and history of cancer. Voters who really pay attention will realize, for example, that St. Louis County, with 1 million residents, has more voters than the entire state of Alaska, which has less than 700,000.

Warren, too, stressed how difficult it is to gauge the impact race will have on the election, although polls have shown that it will be a factor.

"I think if Obama had all the same qualifications but he happened to be white, I think he would win in a blowout. But because he's black, there will be problems with his ability to win enough of the white vote in states like Missouri to win the presidency," Warren said.

Bigotry, in many cases, will trump economic condition, he predicts.

"They normally would vote Democratic, but they can't bring themselves to vote for a black person," Warren said.

Mandel predicts that the next 60 days until the election will bring many more shifts and turns.

Said Storch: "I think this is going to be dogfight for the independents. And there are no guarantees in this election. You wake up every day trying to figure out what is coming next."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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