Since it became clear that Hillary Clinton would likely bow out of the race for the Democratic nomination for president, the dominant narrative has been the angry white women who are holding back from Barack Obama. Some even suggest that John McCain can make a major play for these disaffected Clinton supporters. The problem with this narrative is that it is mostly wrong, ignoring history and failing to understand Obama's real challenge among women voters.
No doubt, there are some Clinton supporters who currently find it difficult to contemplate supporting Obama, but most of these women are highly engaged, progressive Democratic voters; it is difficult to imagine them ultimately supporting McCain, who has a career-long, anti-woman record.
In fact, Obama is actually doing better than John Kerry with women voters; Kerry won them by 3 points, and according to polling from Democracy Corps research, Obama is currently winning them by 6 points. Obama's improvement over Kerry comes among college educated and younger women -- the most progressive voters in the electorate.
Obama's real struggle is with white blue collar women voters -- the same group that challenged Kerry. Currently, Obama trails McCain among white women without a college education by 19 points, 37 to 56 percent; according to Democracy Corps, Kerry lost these women by the exact same margin, 40 to 59 percent. Some argue that Clinton solved this problem because of her performance with white older women in the Democratic Party. But not only is it a mistake to extrapolate from primary results to the general election, Clinton would also likely lose to McCain among white women without a college education, albeit by a smaller margin.
The key to reaching these women voters is two-fold. First, Obama needs to communicate with them about who he is, including his values and his life story. He and his family actually have more in common with these women than they know. Second, he needs to address their real economic anxieties. As I noted in the American Prospect in 2004, Kerry actually led George Bush with older white women when his campaign was talking about healthcare, retirement and other domestic economic issues. But when he allowed the issue terrain to shift to Iraq and security at the expense of his economic message, he lost ground.
The economic situation is even more tenuous for these women today, with rising gas prices exacerbating their financial squeeze. John McCain has a history of opposing the very policies that would help these women -- including opposing pay equity and raising the minimum wage -- and supporting policies that are unlikely to appeal to these voters such as tax cuts for the wealthy and privatization schemes for health care and Social Security.
McCain is not going to win over women who supported Clinton in the primary and Obama can certainly improve his chances of beating McCain in the general election if he makes inroads among non-college educated white women voters. He can do so by offering a personal narrative that reflects shared values and a family background that's far from the elitist he is alleged to be, and delivering an economic message that highlights specific proposals designed to help ease the daily financial pressures of white working class women.