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Women Voters Present Unusual Challenges for Obama

August 26, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Recent poll results show Sen. Barack Obama's appeal to women differs between those who struggle economically and their affluent counterparts. Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center and Amy Walter of the Hotline assess how women voters are weighing the presidential race.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the challenges facing the Democrats on the economic front and to bring the Clinton supporters into the fold. Margaret Warner continues that story.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on how Obama is doing with women voters and those most affected by the troubled economy, we turn to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Welcome back, both of you.

As Mark and David commented earlier in the program and we all know, Hillary Clinton did better than Barack Obama among voters who feel they are struggling economically.

Andy, how is Obama doing now with that group and particularly the subset of women in that group?

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, Obama is doing about as well as Kerry was, John Kerry was four years ago. Among all women, there’s a 51 percent-38 percent margin, pretty comparable to what Kerry was polling. But it should be better, because this is a more Democratic year and women are a Democratic-leaning group.

Women's age affect their vote

ANDREW KOHUT: The problem rests among white women, where actually John McCain leads by a 46 percent to 43 percent margin, comparable to the deficits that Kerry and Gore had among these groups.

And there's no real progress there. For the things that -- in the places where Obama has made gains, among the younger women, among the college graduate women, they're offset by the fact that McCain is leading and doing better among older women, among less affluent women, women who are really struggling financially.

And these, of course, were the constituents, the principal constituents of Hillary Clinton in the nomination contest.

MARGARET WARNER: What explains that, Amy?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Well, I think there are a couple of things going on. The first is, for so many of these voters -- and I think you saw this in this piece, too -- there is this real pull here between, you know, reconciling their traditional voting patterns, right?

These were people that culturally, I think -- many of these white working-class voters have been voting Republican for some time now based really on cultural issues more than economic issues. You saw in the last few elections some of the richest counties in America voting for Democrats, some of the poorest voting for Republicans.

Now what we're seeing -- and it's interesting -- we have yet to get into this, because, remember, this has been a focus almost entirely on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, not on Barack Obama and John McCain.

But what we have to see now is, when these voters get cross-pressured between cultural issues and economic issues, where they're going to go. They've chosen culture issues in the past. Are they going to choose it in a year where, as this woman noted in the piece today, the anxiety is higher than ever?

Obama's economic appeal

MARGARET WARNER: So when you bring the economic issues now, doesn't Barack Obama enjoy an advantage on -- if you just ask who could better handle the economy?

ANDREW KOHUT: It's his principle advantage. He has a 15-point lead over McCain on dealing with the economy.

MARGARET WARNER: But then, if that's the case, why doesn't he have a 15-point lead among women on who would do better with the economy?

ANDREW KOHUT: Because there are these other things. There are the culture questions, which push them the other way. And, actually, what we see among white women, there are some questions among them about Obama's credibility, who he is.

And overwhelmingly they worry about his experience. By a 59 percent to 23 percent margin, the white women that we questioned in August said that John McCain was the more qualified candidate.

So there's the personal issues, the culture issues. But on the other side, there's the mega-issue, the economic thing, and that certainly breaks with the Democrats and breaks for Obama.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think explains it, this disparity between what they say about economic issues and who they choose? And how much of it is about race?

AMY WALTER: Well, short answer, I agree with Andy here that issues aren't really what drive folks to the polls. I mean, they're...

MARGARET WARNER: ... single issues?

AMY WALTER: Right. So, of course, the economy is important to them. But what does that mean in terms of translating into votes? They don't translate that literally into who they vote for.

The second thing, I think race certainly has a part in this. I don't know how we're ever going to get and tease this out of voters, whether you do it in focus groups or in polls. We may not ever know the answer to this.

Hillary Clinton's influence

AMY WALTER: But I think, again, the question is, for Barack Obama, once he matches up with John McCain and voters are given these very stark choices -- remember, they haven't really had them yet -- where are these voters going to go?

And, again, they're being cross-pressured in a way that they haven't in a very, very long time.

MARGARET WARNER: Very quickly to each of you -- like half a sentence -- can Hillary Clinton deliver these voters, even if she says exactly what Barack Obama's campaign hopes she says?

ANDREW KOHUT: They're not going to follow her word literally. She can give them cues. There's so much distance among some of these groups and Barack Obama, it's going to take more than Hillary Clinton saying nicely, politely, even enthusiastically, "Go that way," I think.

AMY WALTER: Yes, I agree. I think she helps, but ultimately he's the one who needs to seal the deal.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Amy Walter, Andy Kohut, thank you.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Margaret.