Andrea Brustein and her husband, Michael Firestone, both New York attorneys, were having lunch with friends when the talk turned to politics. Firestone revealed that he'd made a donation to Barack Obama.
"Well," parried his wife. "Now we're going to donate to Hillary Clinton."
And when Greg Caucutt acquired an Obama bumper sticker for his car on a sunny day in Rochester, Minn., necessity dictated that he give his wife a sticker for hers: A Hillary sticker, that is.
Not that these couples have been fighting tooth and nail — their political banter has been friendly, they say. And surely there are divided couples on the Republican side, too. But in this historic Democratic race, which will produce either the first female or the first black nominee, some couples are finding themselves split down gender lines, even if they don't cite gender as a reason for choosing their candidate. And it's producing some animated household discussions.
For Brustein, 29, and Firestone, 30, it's often on presidential debate nights, or while watching political shows. "We'll argue, debate, spar," says Brustein. "It's not acrimonious," assures Firestone. "I'd call it lively."
For Erik Brock and Jeannie Baca, across the country in Portland, Ore., the conversations happen in groups of friends, or while they're driving to work and listening to public radio. "Often Erik will be excited, enthusiastic about something involving Obama," says Baca, 33, a research scientist who is leaning toward Clinton. "I tend to be the one who hears a report on Clinton and says, 'Oh my God, just give Hillary a break! Let her cry if she wants to!'"
Sisterly pride, but experience counts
It's difficult to measure how many couples are split between the two candidates — pollsters only interview one member of a household. But conversations with a number of couples across the nation showed that when couples are split, it's often — but not always — the man for Obama and the woman for Clinton.
Yet for the women interviewed, though they may feel sisterly pride at Clinton's achievement, gender solidarity isn't usually the reason they mention. It tends to be the "experience issue," as well as a feeling that Clinton has long been unfairly criticized.
"I think a lot of people have an animosity toward her that's not based on anything concrete," says Brustein. "She's intelligent, well-spoken and a fantastic senator. I agree Obama is an inspiring speaker, but at the end of the day, I feel like when she speaks, I hear more substance."
Her husband, though, has admired Obama since the Illinois senator blazed onto the scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "I sort of knew one day I'd be voting for him for president," says Firestone. "I'm not concerned about his lack of experience."
Nor is Jerry Kohn, 50, a lawyer in Skokie, Ill. "I just like him better," Kohn says. "I like his charisma, his leadership abilities. I like the way he can inspire people. And I hate to use the word, but I want change." As for wife Michelle, who supports Clinton, the New York senator's emotional moment in New Hampshire made a difference: "My wife related to that as a mother," he says.
Weighing the candidates' electability
Caucutt, the Minnesota husband, thinks he's the pragmatic one in his marriage: He's supporting Obama partly because he believes the Illinois senator is a lot more electable than Clinton. "So many people just don't like Hillary," he says. "She's unfairly vilified." His wife, Amy, sees it more as "Hey, here's my chance to vote for a female candidate,'" he says.
Ask public policy professor Doug Muzzio about the phenomenon, and he quips: "You're talking about my family! You're definitely onto something."
Muzzio, a specialist in voting behavior at Baruch College in New York, says he's informally surveyed his friends, and while he finds many are split along gender lines, it's hard to generalize to the rest of the country. But he's heard plenty of vigorous arguments. "I know couples who are like, 'HOW could you vote for X?'" he says.
"I think some women perceive their men reacting to Hillary in a way they don't like, in a way that seems to say they could never countenance a woman doing this job," he says.
Exit polls in early primary states have shown Clinton losing among young women under 30, while winning most women older than that. And an Associated Press-Yahoo News survey released Friday shows Clinton with more than double the support of women overall than Obama. The interviews, however, were conducted before the departure of John Edwards and at a very fluid point in the race.
Obama performs strongly among black women. Exit polls in South Carolina and Florida showed them voting in roughly the same proportions as black men: eight in 10 in South Carolina and seven in 10 in Florida.
Carl Horton, Jr., a financial services executive in Bridgeport, Conn. who ran for mayor there and has been active in Democratic politics, says he was a Chris Dodd supporter until the Connecticut senator dropped out. Now, he supports Obama.
His wife, Kristin duBay Horton, a public health consultant, was an Edwards supporter until the former North Carolina senator dropped out this week, admiring his focus on poverty. Now, she is undecided.
"I'm waiting for the skies to part and a light to shine down and say, 'this is the one,'" she says. "My husband wants me on the Obama train with him, but I can't go right now."
But the couple's divided allegiances suit them fine. "I think it's great," says Carl Horton. "It's a sign that we're both independent-minded, thoughtful people."
More than one kind of split
There are, of course, all types of family splits, including a prominent sister split in California, where Rep. Linda Sanchez of Los Angeles has endorsed Obama, while her older sister, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, has endorsed Clinton.
And sometimes, it goes without saying, it's the woman going for Obama. Though New York's Rep. Charles Rangel has been a huge Clinton supporter, his wife, Alma Rangel, endorsed Obama in a statement Friday, soon after reports emerged that she'd attended a fundraising luncheon with Michelle Obama.
And though the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an architect of Clinton's first bid for the Senate, his widow, Elizabeth B. Moynihan, endorsed Obama this week, adding that she believed her husband would have applauded her choice.
With Super Tuesday only days away, the couples interviewed seem to be standing their ground. "He knows he's not going to convince me," says Brustein, the New York lawyer. "He can understand why I'm supporting Clinton, and I can understand why he's supporting Obama." Does her husband still harbor hopes of changing his wife's mind? "I know better than to say anything publicly about that," he quips.
As for Caucutt, like virtually everyone interviewed, he's ready to enthusiastically support whichever candidate emerges victorious, despite his Obama bumper sticker.
"If Hillary gets the nomination, I'll be happy to put HER sticker on my car," he says.