When Michelle Obama appeared Tuesday night on The Colbert Report in Philadelphia, encountering faux pundit Stephen Colbert and hoping to give her husband the "Colbert Bump" before next Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, the comedian asked her an important question—who she was supporting for president.
"That's been a mistake that the polls have made," Obama said. "There are many women like myself who are independent, strong, who care about family values, who know Barack is special, that he has something unique to offer the country and that his perspective is really going to change the lives of working women."
With that statement, Obama unearthed an interesting point about female primary voters. Women as a whole have not consistently voted for Hillary Clinton throughout the Democratic primary season, and a recent poll reinforces the point that many women don't feel that in sharing a gender with the first formidable female candidate, they have to.
The poll, conducted as part of Lifetime television's "Every Woman Counts" campaign, asked whether women felt obligated to vote for Clinton because she was a woman. Twenty-two percent said yes, and out of that 22 percent, 17 percent said it was just a "small part" of why they would vote for her while 5 percent felt a stronger pull.
"You see a little bit of obligation but not a huge tug...the intensity is really lacking there," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who conducted the Lifetime poll alongside Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "I think these women are looking at more than race and gender when looking at these candidates.,"
In the primaries thus far, Obama has won a higher percentage of female voters in more than a dozen contests, and when he's won the women, he's also taken the state. The fact that Obama has been able to gobble up a sizable portion of the women's vote doesn't surprise Michele Swers, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, because each state has different demographics that help or hurt each candidate. In addition, some states hold primaries, which help Clinton, and others hold caucuses, which generally favor Obama.
What is substantial is how the women's vote has been broken down by age, with women over 50 consistently helping out Clinton and younger voters trending toward Obama. "These are the women who experienced the feminist movement the most concretely," said Swers, talking about the older female voters.
"When [Clinton] does well among women, that's when she's won; when [Obama]'s able to make inroads, that's when she's lost," Swers explained. Now that the primary battle has headed to Pennsylvania, it's in part becoming a battle of who can snatch up those women in the middle of the generational divide.
Before the recent "bitter" remarks—when Obama muttered that some small-town voters who were bitter over economic problems clung to guns and religion when heading to the polls—the Illinois senator was using his seven weeks' campaigning time in Pennsylvania and healthy finances to woo female voters partially through a heavy peppering of television commercials. One, called "Maya" after Obama's half-sister, shows Maya; his wife, Michelle; his grandmother, and his two daughters vouching for the Illinois senator. "Barack and I talk all the time about making sure that our girls can imagine any kind of world for themselves, with no barriers," says Michelle Obama in the TV spot. In another, Obama ties his mother's death to cancer with his plans for universal healthcare.
In a month, he has increased his support among Pennsylvania women, but he still trails Clinton by 9 points. Amid the scandal over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's remarks, polls showed 20 percent of the Keystone State's women supporting Obama. More recently, he increased his share to 36 percent last week and 39 percent this week, according to polls conducted by Public Policy Polling. In the Lifetime poll, which represented all Pennsylvania women, not just likely Democratic voters, 34 percent said they supported Clinton, 29 percent Obama, and 20 percent McCain.
And also according to the Lifetime poll, Obama was making some progress nationally with women. Twenty-three percent of the women surveyed said they liked him more than they did at the beginning of the primaries, with 22 percent liking him less. Many of those who held a more negative opinion of the candidate offered his relationship with Wright as the reason. It's too early to see if the recent comments will cause the same reaction among women as Wright did. Clinton, on the other hand, saw a smaller percentage of women finding her more appealing since the beginning of the primaries.
But now, with the most recent campaign controversy still stirring, Obama must continue to make sure he grabs a significant swath of women in Pennsylvania. The polls so far haven't shown much of a negative impact. But while women may not feel obligated to vote for Clinton simply because she's a woman, they may vote for her if they feel she's more in touch with them.