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Obama's Women Problem?

5:17 PM, Jun 6, 2008 • By GARY ANDRES
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Does Obama have a problem with women voters? Will disaffected Clinton voters jump ship and support McCain? American University political scientist Brian Schaffner writes this today, offering some advice about how Obama can boost his numbers among women.

Schaffner argues that in order to win, Obama not only has to win a majority of women, but also run up his margins in this demographic. He makes this observation about the differences between Gore's and Kerry's electoral performances among women:

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote because he carried women by a margin of 54-43%, an 11% advantage. In 2004, John Kerry's advantage among women shrunk to just 3%, the smallest advantage for a Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis in 1988. Had Kerry carried women with the same percentage of the vote that Gore had in 2000, Kerry would have cruised to victory. Instead, Kerry lost the election by more than 2 million votes.

According to the most recent Pew poll, Obama leads McCain among women by 5 points (47%-42%). Schafner adds this historical note:

Obama is currently faring worse among women than Kerry was at this same stage in 2004. No matter how many new voters Obama brings into the electorate, his prospects in the general election will ultimately depend on how he fares with women voters.

Emphasizing issues like healthcare, childcare and education "primes" women voters to favor candidates who talk about those topics, based on Schaffner's research in Senate campaigns. He argues the presidential campaign - to date - has focused more on foreign policy and the economy. If Obama wants to overachieve among women, he'll have to start emphasizing this other set of issues, Schaffner says.

It's an intriguing argument. But I'm a little skeptical about pigeonholing a large segment of the electorate based on one set of issues. I'm not sure if Kerry emphasized healthcare, education and childcare less did than Al Gore. Maybe women in 2004 felt George W. Bush would do a better job fighting terrorism and keeping their families safe compared to John Kerry. Addressing terrorism was not as salient an issue in 2000. Perhaps the absence of a significant national security threat caused more women voters to choose Al Gore in 2000. Nevertheless, arguing Barack Obama can overachieve among women voters in 2008 by just focusing on one set of issues they supposedly care about strikes me as a hypothesis requiring some more investigation.