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Committed Support for 2008 Contenders by Gender (9/06-1/07)

The 2008 presidential race among Democrats is distinctive because for the first time, a woman is seen as one of the leading contenders for nomination. In the spring of last year, when I last considered Hillary Clinton’s candidacy from a gender perspective, there was a great deal of supposition by pundits who make their living by making claims up out of thin air and then sounding authoritative when proclaiming them to be true. Robert Kuttner of the Boston Globe makes a widely agreed-upon supposition when he writes, “Presumably, America’s women will flock to Hillary.” Presumably? What makes this a reasonable presumption? Kuttner assumes that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will gain the support of women because she descriptively represents women. Descriptive representation, as Hannah Pitkin noted in 1967, is the sense in which a politician represents a class of citizens because he or she resembles them. But does descriptive representation lead to substantive representation, the match between a citizen’s policy priorities and a politician’s policy priorities? And how do people decide who to support — primarily by the descriptive appearance of a candidate, or more by the candidate’s positions?

Since then, some empirical evidence about the extent to which women support Clinton especially has emerged. This past week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 59% of Democratic women surveyed reported a positive opinion of Hillary Clinton. But support was also above 50% for both men and women combined (no separate statistics was available for men, and it was unclear whether and how genders were sampled), indicating perhaps only a moderate gender gap in support. Also, the same poll did not indicate whether gender gaps existed for other presidential candidates besides Hillary Clinton. Finally, it’s one thing to say that you support a candidate. But a successful candidacy depends on the commitment of strong adherents who are willing to go out in public and engage in some advocacy for their contender of choice. Is there a similar gender gap among the strongly committed who power a campaign and empower a candidate?

These are empirical questions, and to answer them I’ve decided to look at some of Irregular Times’ own data. Since November 3, 2004 we’ve been offering bumper stickers, shirts and metal pinback buttons expressing support for a variety of 2008 Democratic presidential contenders. And since we’ve been selling these items, we have also been paying attention to the number of items that we sell for each campaign. Instead of the weak and easy indicator of an opinion given over the telephone to a stranger, our own system for tracking candidates measures the kind of support that counts – whether ordinary Americans are willing to spend money to support a particular candidate in a visible way.

Yesterday, I went back through the data for the dates of September 20, 2006 to January 20, 2007. After tabulating the information, I looked at the gender (measured by first name, and omitting ambigous first names — apologies to the Pats and Jamies of the world) of those who indicated their support for the various 2008 Democratic contenders. What percent of items supporting each candidate were bought by women? What percent were bought by men?

Here’s what I found:

% of Stickers, Shirts and Buttons in Supporting a Candidate Bought By:
Candidate Women Men
For All Candidates 49.9% 50.1%
Mike Gravel 12.5% 87.5%
Christopher Dodd 28.6% 71.4%
Dennis Kucinich 30.6% 69.4%
Joe Biden 31.2% 68.8%
Wesley Clark 32.5% 67.5%
John Kerry 37.4% 62.6%
Bill Richardson 37.9% 62.1%
Bill Moyers 38.5% 61.5%
Al Gore 39.7% 60.3%
Hillary Clinton 47.9% 52.1%
Tom Vilsack 52.2% 47.8%
Barack Obama 54.4% 45.6%
John Edwards 54.7% 45.3%

For all the fuss people make about Hillary Clinton being the “woman’s candidate” for 2008, there isn’t much evidence of it. For this period, 49.9% of all people (of identifiable gender) buying 2008 electoral shirts, bumper stickers, buttons, and other gear were women, and 50.1% were men. Yet only 47.9% of the people who supported Clinton with enough strength to buy an item declaring public support were women; 52.1% of these die-hard Clinton supporters were men. Tom Vilsack, Barack Obama and John Edwards attracted a higher proportion of committed women than Hillary Clinton did in that period. That’s pretty interesting to me.

As we pass from winter to spring, I’ll check in again on this data; look for a piece tomorrow on comparisons of the distributions of candidate support by state.

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