What Does A Woman Bring To A Ticket?

This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.


Twenty-four years ago, when Walter Mondale selected Representative Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate, he was running far behind Ronald Reagan in the polls. His choice was in part a response to demands by women's groups to put a woman on the Democratic ballot.

Throughout 1984, there were polls asking whether people were more likely to vote Democratic if a woman were on the ticket. In June, the Gallup Poll asked: "If the Democratic presidential nominee selected a woman to be his vice presidential running mate, would this make you more likely or less likely to vote for the Democratic ticket?" Thirty two percent of Democratic voters said it would make them more likely to vote Democratic, 18 percent said it would make them less likely. Independents were evenly divided: 27 percent more likely, 24 percent less likely.

Most other polls also put the impact as a wash - in April of that year, CBS News and The New York Times found 74 percent of all registered voters said it wouldn't make a difference one way or the other. Those that were affected divided - but more said a woman vice presidential candidate would make them vote against the woman candidate's party than for it.

Women's groups trumpeted the positive results and ignored the negatives, especially the fact that many of those who said putting a woman on the ticket would make them more likely to vote Democratic were likely to vote Democratic anyway. The National Women's Political Caucus polled Democratic convention delegates, and according to Flora Davis in her book Moving the Mountain, they hand-delivered those results to Mondale: 82 percent of convention delegates, they found, would be at least somewhat positive about having a woman on the ticket.

Unfortunately for Mondale, however, there was little hope for the Democratic ticket that year. Ronald Reagan had looked vulnerable in 1983, but by the start of 1984, a CBS News/New York Times Poll showed him 16 points ahead of Mondale among registered voters; and he won the election by 20 points.

This year, those kinds of questions weren't asked in the months prior to the about the Republican ticket. Polls did find some support for a woman on the Democratic ticket: a Fox News poll in August found 43 percent of registered voters saying Hillary Clinton was the "best" choice for vice president. Other polls suggested she would bring her supporters to the Democratic ticket. The latest CBS News Poll has Obama-Biden winning only 74 percent of Clinton primary voters, although that's an improvement over the 63 percentage for Barack Obama before the conventions. Among Democratic delegates, Clinton had a huge lead over Biden when delegates were asked to volunteer whom they thought Obama should choose as his running mate.

There are other differences between 1984 and today, some in style and some in substance. Back in 1984, Mondale and Ferraro didn't touch, not even raising hands together. That has certainly changed. Everybody hugs, nowadays, no matter what the gender of the candidates.

Typically, voters say the vice presidential choices will matter more to them before they are chosen than they say they will afterwards, when the focus of the race shifts back to the tops of the tickets. That has yet to happen this year. Perhaps that's because the conventions, coming so quickly together, focused attention on the vice presidential choices, and perhaps also it's because nearly everyone was surprised by John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin.

Last weekend, between the two conventions, Democrats were somewhat more likely than Republicans to say the VP choice would make a difference to them. It appeared that Joe Biden, the safer choice, might be more appealing than Palin in the days immediately after she was named. But now, it's Palin who is driving more voters. Forty percent of those supporting the McCain-Palin ticket say the vice presidential candidates are having an impact on their vote. Just 24 percent of Obama supporters are saying that.

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To underscore the impact, 65 percent of Obama voters are glad he chose Biden; 85 percent of McCain voters are glad he chose Palin!

Although vice presidential choices can affect voter judgment of the candidates at the top of the ticket, so far this year the impact is limited. Although many voters see Palin as having less experience than Biden, the experience gap at the top of the ticket hasn't changed. Just 47 percent say Palin has prepared herself enough for the job of vice president, something 70 percent say about Biden. Those percentages could certainly change in the next few weeks, particularly after the vice presidential debate on October 2. But her apparent weakness has yet to affect the perceived strength of the man she is running with. Prior to the two conventions, 68 percent said that McCain had prepared himself well for the job of president; even more, 76 percent, say that now.

The selection of Biden hasn't brought a transfer of his 35 years of Senate experience to perceptions of Obama. Before the conventions, 44 percent described Obama as prepared, and there has been no significant change: 42 percent think so today.

One quality that may be transferable, though, is empathy. Sixty percent say Palin is someone they can relate to (64 percent of women say this). Just 40 percent say this about Biden. Obama has never had a problem on this characteristic: six in ten voters have thought he understands their needs and problems all along. McCain has, and Obama took advantage of that in his acceptance speech, when he accused McCain of "not getting it." Before the Republican Convention, just 44 percent thought McCain understood their needs and problems; that rose to 51 percent afterwards.

The Palin nomination certainly has given McCain a bounce - at least for now.
By Kathy Frankovic
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