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Impact of the Women's Vote in the 2008 Election

Why Sarah Palin as 'the Female Candidate' Failed to Win Women Voters


Updated November 11, 2008
Throughout the 2008 presidential election cycle, the so-called 'women's vote' was a highly sought-after bloc. From Newsweek magazine's "What Women Want" cover story to the wide-ranging speculation of political pundits of both genders, answers varied as to what might attract women voters to one campaign over another.

The passion engendered by Hillary Clinton's failed presidential bid and her standing as the most successful runner-up in history led some to believe that a nearly foolproof way to secure the women's vote would be to put a woman on the ticket. When Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination after a contentious primary season, many of Clinton's 18 million supporters hoped he would strongly consider her as his running mate.

A Female Number Two

Yet Obama passed over Clinton and several other female VP possibilities (including Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius) to name Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

Republican candidate John McCain, whose track record on women's issues did not indicate strong support over the years, strayed from his short list of potential VPs to choose a relative unknown - Alaska Governor Sarah Palin - on August 29, 2008, partly in hopes of attracting disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters.

At the time, a large number of observers felt the McCain campaign strategy was brilliant and the unexpected pick consistent with his 'maverick' image.

Gender Alone Isn't Enough

In retrospect, however, the fact that one political party nominated a female candidate did not matter to the majority of women voting in 2008.

According to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, despite John McCain's historic choice of a running mate, women showed a clear preference for Barack Obama.

An analysis of exit poll data conducted by the CAWP revealed the following:

Women's votes were a significant factor in Senator Barack Obama's victory, with a sizable gender gap evident in the election results....Women strongly preferred Obama to Senator John McCain (56 percent for Obama, 43 percent for McCain), unlike men, who split their votes about evenly for the two presidential candidates (49 percent for Obama, 48 percent for McCain).

Charm Wears Off

The much-heralded 'Sarah Palin effect' - the bump in McCain's poll numbers that began after the initial announcement and skyrocketed following her impressive speech before the Republican National Convention - diminished over the course of the campaign.

Women voters who were initially charmed by her 'pit bull with lipstick' hockey mom image began to question her capabilities after two unflattering TV interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric were broadcast in September 2008.

For many, Palin's fervent anti-abortion stance (even in the case of rape or incest) and her desire to overturn Roe v. Wade represented extreme views they could not support.

Drag on the Ticket

This shift in women's attitudes toward Palin was reflected in a national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 16-19, 2008, and reported on October 21:

Sarah Palin appears to be a continuing – if not an increasing – drag on the GOP ticket....Women, especially women under age 50, have become increasingly critical of Palin: 60% now express an unfavorable view of Palin, up from 36% in mid-September. Notably, opinions of Palin have a greater impact on voting intentions than do opinions of Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate.

"Nail in the Coffin"

Strong anti-Palin sentiment among women surfaced on a number of fronts. From the blogosphere and op-ed pieces written by leading feminists, to columns penned by prominent conservatives and interviews with everyday female voters, many questioned her qualifications and grew uneasy as details of Troopergate and her $150,000 clothing budget came out.

And although Palin initially identified herself as a feminist, she began to shy away from that label - a move that did not help.

An early argument expressed by feminists - that the Palin pick was nothing more than a cheap attempt to pander to women - eventually reverberated among mainstream voters as well, including the crucial independent and swing voters.

Mary Gockowski , a 52-year-old Ohio preschool worker who voted twice for President Bush, explained to MSNBC why she couldn't vote for the GOP this year:

"I do like Barack Obama, but Sarah Palin was the nail in the coffin," she said. "I objected to (McCain's) judgment and to the idea that, 'Here, we'll give another female to the women of America because they might be dumb enough to vote for a female because of her sex.'"

If the 2008 election had any lessons to offer in the gender debate, the most obvious one is this: Although women may eagerly flock to a female candidate in the initial stage of a campaign, by the time election day rolls around it's the candidate's position on the issues - and not her or his sex - that exerts greater influence on the female voter.

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