“Every woman in America knows what Barack Obama did to Hillary Clinton: He looked at her and thought, ‘There’s no way I’m doing that,’” said Miller. “If Hillary was on the ticket, he’d be in a much better position to win women voters.”
Sarah Palin’s presence — coupled with Clinton’s absence — may be altering one of the great verities of American politics: that women voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed white women swinging hard against the Democratic ticket. Obama left Denver with an 8-point lead among white women; by the time John McCain pulled out of St. Paul, Minn., with Palin at his side, he had taken a 12-point lead.
Former Clinton strategist and pollster Mark Penn on Tuesday said that it’s too soon to know where women will wind up in November, and he declined to engage in any “woulda, coulda, shoulda” speculation about how things might be different if Clinton were on the Democratic ticket.
But another former Clinton adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the “Obama people have got to be kicking themselves” for not putting choosing Clinton as his No. 2.
Julia Piscitelli of the American University’s Women and Politics Institute agreed.
“I don’t think Palin would be seeing these kind of gains if Hillary was on the ticket,” she said. “When Obama picked Biden, it gave Republicans an opening, and they are taking full advantage of it. ... The question is: How long will it last?”
The answer, some Democrats say, is not long.
“I don’t think this is a real swing [in the polls] until it’s been a week, said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of Obama’s busiest female surrogates. “We’ll need to see whether Sarah Palin is willing to answer questions. ... No one will be a stronger advocate for Barack Obama and Joe Biden than Hillary Clinton.”
Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln (D-Ark.) also sounded the Palin-will-wilt-in-the-spotlight theme.
“Sarah Palin delivered a great speech, but we haven’t heard anything else about what she’s going to do,” Lincoln said. “American women are smart, they’re bright and this election isn’t just about Sarah Palin. This is about what they want to do for the country.”
The Obama campaign has denied that it has a serious problem with female voters.
On Monday, campaign manager David Plouffe told a Washington Post reporter, “Your poll is wrong,” adding, “We certainly are not seeing any movement like that. Polls, time to time, particularly on the demographic stuff, can have some pretty wild swings.”
That view won support from two unlikely sources Tuesday: Penn and a Republican senator who backs the McCain-Palin ticket.
Penn said that women are going to be “the absolute swing vote in this campaign, and it’s not clear which direction they are going to go in.
“I don’t think it’s a Hillary backlash we’re seeing,” he added. “With Palin on the ticket, we’re going to be seeing this thing swing back and forth.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has had a strained relationship with her state’s governor, downplayed Palin’s power. “I find it difficult to believe that many of the Hillary supporters are going to come over just because of Sarah Palin,” Murkowski said. “It should be about strength of positions” and policy.
But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is locked in a tough race of her own, says several women — former Clinton supporters — have come up toher in Maine to say Palin gives them a reason to back McCain.
“I have never seen such excitement in the Republican Party as we’re seeing in response to Sarah Palin,” Collins said. “I’ve had a lot of Democrats and independent women in Maine who say they’re happy to see a woman on the ticket. Many of them saw an Obama-Clinton ticket as unbeatable. ... That is significant and remarkable.”
Quinnipiac University Polling Institute Assistant Director Peter A. Brown said the Obama campaign is fooling itself if it discounts the importance of the problem. “This isn’t about Hillary; it’s about Obama’s problem with white women voters,” he said. “Hillary won about 10 million votes from women voters in the Democratic primaries — there are 52 million women voting in the general election.”
Clinton has said she’ll hit the road for Obama, but her team says she refuses to be an anti-Palin “attack dog.” Further complicating matters for Obama, Hillaryland fundraiser Susie Tompkins Buell is leading a group that will fight media sexism against the Alaska governor.