Election 2008  
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Gender Is Hillary Clinton's Achilles Heel

No one would dare make a blatantly racist comment about Obama. Yet sexist remarks are constantly spewed at Hillary Clinton.
 
 
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Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, is incredibly naïve, incredibly sheltered, incredibly in denial, or maybe a bit of all three. In late March, she told a Young Democrats audience in North Carolina that she was shocked at the nasty things some male (and even female) folks on the campaign trail are saying about her mother. Things like, "Iron my shirts," and "the nutcracker in your ... " The vulgarities are heaped on top of the hard-headed belief of many men and women that a woman just doesn't have the right stuff to be the nation's commander-in-chief.

Chelsea would have gotten a healthy lesson in Sexism 101 if she had glanced at polls, and that includes a CBS News poll taken just a week before her talk, that have consistently shown that far more Americans have a bigger problem voting for a woman for president than voting for an African American.

The worst part of this is that if anyone dared make a racial crack about Barack Obama they'd be pounded into the sand. Yet, blatant sexist and anti-woman remarks are routinely spewed out, often unchallenged, and even cackled at. In the CBS News poll, though more said they have heard more racist cracks in the past few months than sexist cracks, they were less likely to be offended by the sexist ones than the racist ones.

The big worry for the Clinton camp is not the sexist innuendos, wisecracks and even the double standard with which gender and race are treated on the campaign trail, but how many voters it might scare away from Clinton in a head to head showdown with John McCain. There's good reason for the scare.

The gender gap was first identified and labeled in the 1980 presidential contest between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. That year, Reagan got more than a 20 percent bulge in the margin of male votes over Carter. Women voters by contrast split almost evenly down the middle in backing both Reagan and Carter. Men didn't waver from their support of Reagan during his years in office. Many of the men that backed Reagan made no secret about why they liked him. His reputed toughness, firmness and refusal to compromise on issues of war and peace fit neatly into the often time stereotypical male qualities of professed courage, determination and toughness.

The gender split is always apparent when there's a crisis such as a brush fire war, a physical conflict, or the threat of a terrorist attack. Even before he took office, pollsters noted that far more women than men openly worried that Reagan would drag us into a war. That was not a major concern for men. The divergence between men and women on the issue of war and peace showed up again in even more stark contrast two decades later on the Iraq war. Polls showed gaps of nearly twenty percent between men and women when asked how long they thought American troops should stay in Iraq. Far more women than men said that the troops should be withdrawn as quickly as possible.

The huge spread in male and female views on public policy issues was just as pronounced in the terrorism war. More men than women by nearly 20 percent took a harder stance against nations that they perceive back terrorist groups.

In countless surveys, polls, and anecdotal conversations, women say they are less likely to stay up on political issues than men, and are more likely to vote for a candidate based on personal likes or dislikes than men. When asked what they liked about Clinton, many women reflexively said they liked her toughness. That's generally considered a rough-and-tumble male quality.

The issues of war, national security, strong defense, and terrorism don't totally explain the constant 15 to 20 percent gender gap between men and women on candidates and issues in elections noted as far back as 1980. Another possible explanation for that is how men and women perceive the messages that male candidates convey, and whether they use code words and terms to convey them.

GOP presidential candidates and presidents in past decades have at various times skewered social programs and nakedly played the race card in presidential campaigns beginning with Goldwater in 1964. Since then, other Republicans at times artfully stoked male rage with racially charged slogans like "law and order," "crime in the streets," "welfare cheats," and "absentee fathers." Bush's John Wayne frontier brashness, and get tough, bring 'em on rhetoric in talking about Iraq and the war against terrorism was calculatingly geared to appeal to supposed male toughness.

The endemic sexism buried deep in the skulls of many American voters alone won't sink Clinton. It's just simply another 'X' factor for Clinton that Obama and McCain don't have to worry about.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

 
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