IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Clinton owes lead to support from women

The consistent lead that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has maintained over Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and others in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is due largely to one factor: her support from women.
U.S. Sen. Clinton speaks onstage with supporters at a \"Club 44\" campaign event for Clinton in Washington
U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks onstage with supporters at a "Club 44" campaign event for Clinton in Washington, on June 6. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The consistent lead that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has maintained over Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and others in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is due largely to one factor: her support from women.

In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, Clinton led Obama by a 2 to 1 margin among female voters. Her 15-point lead in the poll is entirely attributable to that margin. Clinton drew support from 51 percent of the women surveyed, compared with 24 percent who said they supported Obama and 11 percent who said they backed former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

Clinton is drawing especially strong support from lower-income, lesser-educated women -- voters her campaign strategists describe as "women with needs." Obama, by contrast, is faring better among highly educated women, who his campaign says are interested in elevating the political discourse.

Campaign advisers say they expect Obama to pick up support from all categories of voters once they get to know him better, and that could change the structure of the race. But for now, women appear to be playing an outsized role in shaping it and could tip the scale toward the winner.

In 2004, women made up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate, including between 54 and 59 percent in the early-voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

"Women are a significant proportionate share of the Democratic primary electorate in most of these states, and women are disproportionately in favor of Hillary Clinton," said Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic pollster who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign.

If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, however, the general election may be a different story. In a Post-ABC News poll conducted in April, 43 percent of female independents said they definitely will not vote for her if she is the Democratic nominee, compared with 29 percent who said the same about Obama.

Obama, Edwards eye potential openings
In the meantime, Obama and Edwards see potential openings among female Democrats.

Betsy Myers, the chief operating officer of the Obama campaign, who served as director of women's initiatives and outreach in Bill Clinton's administration, said she expects women to see the appeal of a candidate who takes a new approach to politics.

"Women are tired of the polarization of politics, and Barack is such a uniter," she said. Women, she said, "are tired of people not getting along."

Unwilling to cede any part of the female vote to Clinton, Obama has launched a "women for Obama" campaign and is heralding "Obama moms," and Edwards has released a long list of female supporters in Iowa and elsewhere.

"The excitement of Hillary's candidacy, the historic nature of it, is capturing the attention of women -- there's no question about that," said Kate Michelman, an abortion rights advocate who is leading Edwards's effort to attract women to his campaign. But, Michelman said, "eventually, gender will recede a bit from the foreground. It will recede a bit in its singular, driving importance. And women will be looking at the values, the views, the competence, the electability of a candidate."

Harrison Hickman, a pollster for Edwards, said he believes there is potential for Clinton's early bond with these voters to falter. "When you talk to women in more detail, they express doubts," Hickman said. Only when rival campaigns start trying to exploit those doubts, and when Clinton's camp starts addressing them, will the polls start to paint a more meaningful portrait of the race, he said.

Educational divide
According to the most recent Post-ABC national poll, taken between May 29 and June 1, women 18 to 44 years old are more likely to see Clinton as the most inspiring of the candidates. Clinton drew support from 61 percent of women who had at most a high school degree, compared with 18 percent for Obama. By contrast, female college graduates were more evenly split: 38 percent said they preferred Clinton, and 34 percent backed Obama. (Twelve percent said they supported Edwards.)

A large gap also appeared on the question of which candidate seemed the most honest and trustworthy: Clinton was considered most honest by 42 percent of women who had only a high school education, compared with 16 percent for Obama. But only 19 percent of college-educated women said Clinton is the most honest; 50 percent chose Obama.

"She ran the country for eight years, so I feel like she could do it again," said Juanita Anders, 71, a registered Democrat who lives in a rural area near Springfield, Ohio, and participated in the Post-ABC poll. Anders, who is a high school graduate with a bit of college education, said that she would "very much" like to see a female president and that, as a result, she has barely given Obama a second thought. She described her support for Clinton as "definite."

Effort to widen the gender gap
Clinton is pursuing multiple tracks in hopes of widening the gender gap. She recently banked endorsements from key women's political organizations, including Emily's List and the National Organization for Women. She has launched a women's finance committee to recruit female -- and, her campaign hopes, first-time -- donors. She held women-specific events -- a breakfast in New York, a club party in Washington -- last week and announced that Ellen Malcolm, the president of Emily's List, will serve as a national co-chairman of her campaign.

A video on her campaign Web site titled "Ready for Change" shows testimonials from female leaders and other women, interspersed with shots of crowds waving "Women for Hillary" signs.

One goal for the Clinton team: pulling in women as first-time political donors. At a recent meeting of members of the Clinton finance team, Susie Tompkins Buell, a Clinton fundraiser and California executive, shared the results of a report by the Women's Campaign Forum, a nonprofit organization with ties to Clinton.

The group found that women have accounted for less than a third of individual "hard money" contributions to political candidates but make up a huge untapped source for future donations.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.