Democratic Women Torn Between Clinton and Obama

Eyeing History, Race and Gender Could Play Role in Democratic Women's Vote


Feb. 4, 2008 — -- Faced with the historic opportunity to elect either the first African American or the first woman as their party's nominee, Democrats are torn between voting for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D.-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in tomorrow's Super Tuesday multistate primary and caucus votes.

Democratic women are particularly engaged in the 2008 nomination battle: In every Democratic primary or caucus vote thus far, women have accounted for between 57 and 61 percent of the vote.

Their choice will make history regardless of which candidate they select to lead their party. Obama would be the first African American chosen as the party's nominee for president, and Clinton would be the first woman chosen in that role.

It's a quandary for Democratic women who, after decades of choosing between a slate of white males on the ballot competing for their party's nomination, must deal with the possibility that for the first time, identity politics -- a desire to politically advance women or African Americans -- could play a role in their decision-making.

But while Democratic voters are aware of the historic implications of their vote, many women say race and gender are not as important as where the candidates stand on the issues.

"We as Democrats are facing an embarrassment of riches," admits Kamala Harris, a district attorney in San Francisco and the first elected African American female district attorney in California history.

But Harris, who is leading the "African Americans for Obama" sub-group, said it is insulting to assume women will make their decision simply on the basis of their race or gender.

"Black women are going to vote for whichever candidate appeals to their values and their issues," she said. "We are too far along in this election for anybody to be making decisions based on a superficial basis."

Many Democratic women say they are balancing their desire to see a women or an African American in the White House with a careful analysis of the issues facing the nation.

"It's not just about electing a woman or a black man. Women want to weigh all the facts and they want to do what's right for the country," said Helen Mendel, a California women's business advocate in her 50's.

Mendel said she is leaning towards voting for Clinton in California's primary on Tuesday, when 22 states hold their primaries and caucuses, including delegate-rich states like New York, Illinois and New Jersey. She said Clinton's experience and plans for the economy and universal health care won her over.

Mendel admits she has sympathized with Clinton as a woman during the election, noting Clinton has been criticized for showing a bit of cleavage and called the b-word.

"She has to walk a fine line and can't appear to be too feminine or too tough," Mendel said. "She's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't."

Issues of race and gender have found their way into the Democratic race, with Clinton garnering headlines after she became emotional when a woman asked her how she does it. Clinton later said her tears may have been a factor in why women overwhelmingly supported her in the New Hampshire primary.

And former President Bill Clinton was accused of race-baiting when he attempted to marginalize Obama's win in South Carolina by pointing out that civil rights leader Jesse Jackson had also won the state in 1984 and 1988, but didn't win his party's nomination.

While poll numbers indicate gender and race may play a role in the Super Tuesday votes, political analysts say historically, voters make their decision based on their party identity and on the candidates' issues platform.

"Issues trump identity," said Clyde Wilcox, professor of political science at Georgetown University and author of several books on gender politics.

"Women voters consistently go for someone who will take care of their policies over someone who looks like them."

Going into the Super Tuesday votes, Clinton is leading Obama with 47 percent support to his 43 percent support nationally, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post national poll released Sunday.

Clinton has owed her lead to her advantage among women. Clinton leads Obama by 15 points among likely Democratic women voters and is leading Obama 23 points among white women. Meanwhile, Obama leads Clinton by 2-1 among African-Americans, including black women, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll.

In Florida, the most populous and diverse state to vote thus far, Clinton overwhelmingly won women and also won men. Clinton also won women in New Hampshire, and in Michigan -- where she ran only against "uncommitted." But Clinton's lead among women has not held for all of the early state votes.

Obama won both men and women in South Carolina, where African Americans were 55 percent of the Democratic voters. Obama also garnered more votes from women and men than his rivals in Iowa.

"Hillary does seem to have the support of women in many of the primary states especially among white women," Wilcox said, "but among non-white women, then race trumps gender most of the time."

While women consistently show up to the polls on election day, African Americans tend not to be reliable voters -- a trend that may offer an advantage to Clinton. The New York senator is also seen to have an advantage with Hispanic voters, women and men.

With interest high in this election, women's groups say there has also been record participation in the early voting states among unmarried women, who account for 26 percent of eligible voters.

"An intense desire for change and two historic candidates are creating a surge in participation rates among unmarried women," said Page Gardner of Women's Voices Women Vote, an organization devoted to increasing the vote among unmarried women.

Ultimately, Democratic women voters wield significant power in this Tuesday's multi-state votes where 1681 delegates are up for grabs. Just over 2000 delegates are needed to win the nomination.

And many women say they aren't taking their political clout for granted.

"This election is too important to vote just on personality alone," Mendel said. "We have to all go with not only our guts and our hearts but our minds, too," Mendel said.