Ségolène Royal’s loss has proven once again that women don’t vote for women just because they are women. That is not the story many in media like to tell or hear. Perhaps because Royal tried to convince the women of France that they could help make history by electing her that country’s first female president. Sound familiar?
I only saw a bit of Royal’s final, very wobbly debate with Nicolas Sarkozy. But during it she went on and on and on, and quite emotionally, about how women needed that 35-hour work week, which she resolutely supported, because otherwise they come home to their families too tired. It was the usual women-as-victims story told in French, and it didn’t work. Sarkozy, her opponent, got 52 percent of the female vote.
Still, I thought, if she had won, joining Angela Merkel as a European head-of-state, and if Tzipi Livni could gain more power in Israel, maybe there would be big momentum behind a “let’s leave it to the girls” mentality — which, of course, would benefit our Hillary. Now Hillary’s staff, lickety split, is distancing her from her former girlfriend across the sea. “Other than the fact that they are both women, they don’t have much in common,” declared Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director. Though you can imagine just how much they would have had in common if Royal had pulled it off and won.
Royal was relying on a gender gap that didn’t prove to be there. And the importance of the gender gap in voting — which we have heard so much about over the years — is frequently overblown. It began in 1980 when Eleanor Smeal, a political scientist who became the president of the National Organization of Women, noticed one bit of good news in what she considered the bad news of Reagan’s victory over Carter. Though more women voted for Reagan than Carter, a higher percentage of men had voted for the Republican candidate. Smeal turned this statistical disparity into an effective long-term political game plan. NOW met with the Democratic National Committee to highlight what they labeled “Reagan’s female problem” and called it “the gender gap.” Throughout the next two decades, in election after election, the notion that women and men voted differently, and that, regardless of class, education, and income, women all voted alike simply because they were women, became an accepted fact, endorsed by Democratic operatives and a sympathetic media
How have women really voted these past twenty years? In general Democrats tend to capture the vast majority of African-American women voters, single women, and economically vulnerable women. White married women, especially those with children, tend to slightly favor Republicans, while more traditional homemakers and evangelical Christian women have been firmly in the Republican camp.
Even if the gap is more a crack than a chasm, it is not unimportant, since women make up a larger percentage of the population than men and a greater proportion tend to vote. In some recent elections women have cast more than 55 percent of the votes. Bill Clinton won the “Soccer Moms” in the 1996 election, who turned into “Security Moms” in 2004 and voted for Bush. Part of the reason Republicans lost Congress in 2006 was because, in many districts, they lost those married women with children who had previously supported the president. Though single women in the past have not come out to vote in force, if they did turn out for Hillary in 2008, that could give her an over-the-top boost in some key states.
Currently Hillary’s campaign website is full of videos of her talking to women, whether to Red Hat ladies and nurses in Iowa or to students at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers. And almost every supporter in the videos, young or old, displaying boundless enthusiasm for Hillary, is a woman.
No matter the result of the election in France, Hillary won’t stop courting the women’s vote because her strategy must be to lock up the women to win big in the primaries. Analysis of Royal’s defeat will matter more to Clinton when she has to assess how much emphasis to put on the gender gap in a national election.