According to a new report by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, half of white women now have a negative perception of Obama.
Forty-nine percent of white women view Obama unfavorably, while only 43 percent hold a favorable opinion. In February, 36 percent of these women viewed Obama unfavorably, while 56 percent had a positive perception of the likely Democratic nominee.
Over the same period, Democratic white women’s negative view of Obama increased from 21 percent to 35 percent, while their positive view decreased from 72 percent to 60 percent — roughly the same rate as white women overall.
White men, in general and among Democrats, have shown only a slight drop-off in their perception of Obama — one-third of the shift seen in white women. About 20 percent of Democratic white men have an unfavorable view of Obama, a figure which has remained stable since February.
Pew also found that among self-described Clinton supporters, the negative shift against Obama is more severe among women than among men.
The Pew findings come as Obama’s campaign struggles to close up the primary race while also attempting to avoid the perception of pushing Hillary Rodham Clinton out, for fear of offending her most loyal supporters — the largest bloc of which are white women.
Still unknown is whether white women’s support for Clinton would translate into problems for Obama in the general election.
Intraparty divisions that arise during the primary season are typically mended over the course of the general election. Bill Clinton struggled with college-educated Democrats in the 1992 primary, as John F. Kerry did with young Democratic voters in the early stages of the 2004 race. Both candidates won back these blocs in the general election.
But the Democratic primary race of 2008 is without modern precedent, insofar as black support for Obama and white female support for Clinton are tied up in the symbolism of each candidate’s historic presidential bid.
“There is some sense of the visceral investment with Clinton,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist. Lake believes once the general election is under way, these same white women will gradually move away from McCain over issues, with the expectation that Clinton will campaign on Obama’s behalf if he is the nominee.
“In the long run, women will watch Hillary Clinton’s reaction, how she’s treated by Barack Obama,” Lake added.
White women as a whole now prefer John McCain over Obama, by 49 percent to 41 percent. Last month, Obama was ahead of McCain among white women, 49 percent to 46 percent. The head-to-head matchup between McCain and Obama has not significantly shifted among white men.
“There is no question that white women were — especially older women, not young women — Hillary’s Clinton’s base in the primary, and there is going to be some repair work that has to be done,” Democratic analyst Anna Greenberg said. “There is no reason to believe that these Democratic white women are not pursuable.
“The priority is going to be to bring back these voters,” Greenberg added.
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who has worked with Lake on surveys of women, said that “the steady shift of white women away from Barack Obama” could prove “enduring heading into November.”
“These women have two issues at the top of their agenda that require experience and reasonableness—war and economy,” Conway said. “For many of these women, when they hear Barack Obama talk about cange they hear revolution, not incrementalism.
Conway believes that McCain has particular strengths with these women that allow him to be viewed as independent of the Republican brand.
“Those women will likely vote Democratic down ballot,” she added. “This race is now Barack Obama versus John McCain.”
Democrats have come closest to capturing the White House by winning minorities by large margins and nearly splitting white women, as they did in 2000. Republicans have generally relied on their dominance with white men to put them in the White House, while winning at least half the vote among white women.