Support from women is propelling Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) ahead of her Democratic challengers and positioning her as the most likely candidate to win the nomination, according to new polling analyses.
In a show of strength against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Clinton holds a lead even among minority women of more than 25 percentage points, according to surveys by Zogby International and The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
But Clinton's standing among female voters within the wider electorate so far does not suggest that women would give her an advantage over a Republican in the general election.
Clinton, the first female presidential candidate with a realistic chance of winning the White House, would need to carry the women's vote decisively in a general election to overcome what surveys consistently have shown as her unpopularity among men. The Clinton campaign said it would give special attention to white married working women, a group Democratic strategists have treated as the pivotal voting bloc in recent elections. "They are a challenge for any Democrat," says Ann Lewis, who heads Clinton's outreach to women.
But early indications are that, like Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Al Gore before her, Clinton has not made significant inroads with white women, despite her celebrity and the historic nature of her campaign. White women have not favored a Democrat since 1996. Even then, Bill Clinton proved unable to win a majority.
Both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani poll ahead of Clinton in a head-to-head race among white women, as well as with the electorate overall, according to a new analysis of polling by Zogby.
Yet in the primary contest, where the New York senator currently splits men and maintains a strong lead among women, Clinton remains formidable.
The support of Democratic women so far is serving as a barricade for Clinton, allowing her to retain her front-runner status in the face of a challenge by Obama. This is an especially valuable advantage, since support tied to gender is likely to remain more constant than malleable perceptions like electability and character.
Clinton splits men with Obama (32 percent each) among likely Democratic primary voters. Strikingly, the gender gap in Clinton's favor in the Democratic contest crosses racial lines, despite Obama's African-American status, according to the Pew and Zogby research.
"Women of color, especially black women, tend to make up their mind early in the process," says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. Brazile was the first black woman to manage a major party presidential campaign, overseeing Gore's 2000 bid for the presidency. "Here's the problem for Senator Obama: He's not well-known. People tend to think that because he's an African-American that he'll attract African-American support. That's not the way it works," Brazile continues. "The way it works is that African-Americans tend to support those they know, and Hillary Clinton, like Bill Clinton, are known commodities."
Clinton also leads Obama by more than 10 percent among white Democratic women, according to both polling groups. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards runs a distant third nationally among men and women.
The Politico asked Zogby, American Research Group and Pew to break down female voter support into subgroups by race, education, marital status and age in order to get a better understanding of whether the first serious female candidate is making inroads with women. To compensate for small sample sizes, Zogby aggregated its January, February, March and May polling. Pew combined its March and April surveys for the same reason.
In some of the first states to test Clinton's candidacy -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- Clinton's popularity with liberal-leaning women remains large enough to place her ahead of challengers, accoring to ARG.
Women make up 55 percent to 60 percent of likely Democratic primary voters. Zogby finds that minority women amount to roughly one in five likely Democratic voters.
Among Democratic primary voters, Clinton's strongest female support comes from those 18 to 34 as well as women over 70, Zogby found. Clinton polls stronger with single women than with married women. Also, women without four-year college degrees are more likely to support Clinton than are those with college degrees. Yet in every subgroup, according to Pew and Zogby, Clinton leads the Democratic field in female support.
"Women are, by the bottom line of politics, an essential element of Democrats winning the primary and the general," says Lewis, who characterizes Clinton's gender as an "asset" in the election.
So far, though, Clinton's gender appears to be an asset only in the primaries. McCain defeats Clinton among white women, 46 percent to 42 percent. Giuliani defeats Clinton among white women, 51 percent to 38 percent.
Clinton hopes to narrow this white female margin should she make it to the general election. The reason: Clinton wins less than a third of white men against both McCain and Giuliani. And like Democrats before her, Clinton believes women compose the more persuadable swing voting bloc.
Today, Clinton's support among whites is roughly equivalent to what Walter Mondale earned in 1984 against a popular incumbent, Ronald Reagan. That year, Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential nominee.
But former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served as Ferraro's foreign policy adviser during the campaign, emphasizes that "1984 was a different time." Reagan's victory "had nothing to do with women," Albright adds. "It was an issue of President Reagan being popular."