When Thinking Palin, Don’t Think Hillary Voters

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You are being fooled by a shiny, sparkling distraction of an argument. My advice: Ignore the pundits and spinmeisters every time they tell you that the McCain campaign chose Gov. Sarah Palin in an effort to deprive Barack Obama of Hillary Clinton voters. Republican-leaning pundits use this line because they want to exaggerate Palin’s appeal. Democratic-leaning pundits use this line as a way of mocking McCain for being out of touch with the real concerns of Clinton voters. Non-ideological pundits use this line because they are not reading the polls.

It’s too early to tell what impact Palin could have among women voters, but it’s not hard to tell what group of women the McCain campaign hopes to lure. And they are not Hillary Clinton voters. “Hillary got about 10 million women’s votes. There are going to be about 62 million women voters in November,” explains Peter Brown, a pollster at Quinnipiac University. “The Palin stuff is not aimed at the Hillary 10, it’s at the other 52.”

In particular, the Palin pick looks to solve a problem that has long bedeviled McCain this campaign season: He is not wooing as many white women as President Bush won in 2004, especially in key swing states. These women are not the typical Hillary supporters, who were generally social liberals favoring government solutions to economic problems, and who would never think to vote for President Bush. These are the women who traditionally get funny names in election years, names like “soccer moms” or “security moms.” And more of them voted for George W. Bush than John Kerry in 2004.

Brown and Clay Richards, his colleague at Quinnipiac University, walked me through their recent polling in key swing states to show the problem that McCain faces. Over the last couple months, Quinnipiac has found spreads of 20 points between the support of white men and white women for McCain in key states. For example, McCain beats Obama by 19 points among white men in Michigan, but loses white women by one point. McCain wins Minnesota by 10 points among white men, but loses the same state by 10 points among white women. In the crucial western state of Colorado, McCain wins white men by 25 points, but loses white women by five points–a 30 point spread. We are talking about white men and women who know each other. In some cases, they sleep in the same bed.

And this is a gap that McCain has to find a way to close. Why? Because President Bush closed it in 2004. In Colorado, Bush beat Kerry among white women by 11 points. Obama now leads the same group by five points. In Ohio, Bush beat Kerry among white women by 10 points. Now McCain is only ahead in the demographic by one point.

Palin has already excited the Republican base. McCain campaign advisers tell me they have shifted from trying to persuade conservatives to support McCain to asking for more volunteer time. The outstanding question is what impact Palin will have among white women who supported Bush in 2004, and never got on board the Hillary Clinton bandwagon. Those are the potential Palin votes. And Hillary Clinton might have appealed to them in a general election, but they were never hers to begin with.