The Myth of Hillary Clinton and the Angry White Women

It's a sure sign of trouble when a writer interrupts an argument to apologize for invoking a cliche. So it is a mystery why Rebecca Traister did not delete her reference to Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus in her article seeking to explain "Why Clinton voters say they won't support Obama." (Instead, she parenthetically apologizes, "yes, I'm invoking [the pop-psychology book]; address your letters of complaint to")

Traister's reliance on a worn-out self-help cliche is not just an example of uninspired writing -- it is one of the most egregious examples of how the press is substituting assumptions about Obama's problems with Clinton voters for actual reporting. Traister trots out Women are from Venus as a way to assert that Clinton supporters holding out are Obama are women who "want to air their grievances and let their opponents know where they're coming from." Now, there are undoubtedly many women who are upset at Clinton's defeat, though I'm sure they'd take umbrage at the suggestion that their continued disappointment is the result of not "being heard." However, the evidence suggests Obama's main problem with Clinton voters has little to do with gender. Perhaps that's why Traister is resorting to such cheap -- and, frankly, demeaning -- rhetoric.

A piece accompanying Traister's by Walter Shapiro -- who accepts Traister's gender premise but argues that Clinton women will ultimately "come home" to Obama -- grounds their discussion in last week's Washington Post/ABC News poll. The Post/ABC find that 24 percent of Democrats who supported Clinton in the primaries say they now prefer McCain over Obama, while another thirteen percent are threatening to stay home altogether. But Shapiro and Traister overlook this crucial paragraph from the poll summary:

Obama is not disproportionately weaker among Clinton supporters who comprised her core groups, such as women, seniors and working-class whites. Instead he's losing those who value strength and experience over change, who doubt Obama's qualifications and who see him as a risky choice--mirroring his challenges among all adults more broadly.

In other words, Democratic women aren't deserting their party because of a defeat dealt to their gender. Rather, Obama is losing voters in his own right amongst some voters who are comparing his resume with the much-lengthier one of his opponent. Once we stop viewing the Democratic contest through the identity-politics lens, this isn't all that surprising. Some voters perhaps cast their ballot for Clinton solely because of her gender, but the vast majority valued her qualities as a candidate. Certainly, the one she touted most is exactly what these Clinton supporters say they prefer about McCain: experience.

Perhaps, as Treister caricatures, stories of "grumpy old ladies still hung up on Hillary Clinton" make for more entertaining prose than a dull report on how some blocks of voters are worried about job qualifications. That may be why reporters are so readily accepting this story line. And, if Treister is representative, they're doing reporting that can only confirm what they think they already know. She says she based her piece on "interviews with women at Clinton's June 3 nonconcession speech and her June 7 concession speech, and on comments I heard from some attendees at an EMILY's List conference a week after Clinton bowed out."

In fairness, Senator Clinton's concession speech was a powerful hint to reporters like Traister pointing them in the gender direction. Her June 7 speech was a major rhetorical pivot. After a campaign that carefully avoided focusing on her gender, Clinton wholly embraced role as a feminist champion. She may have lost the nomination, but she claimed a victory for women by making "eighteen million cracks" in the White House's glass ceiling.

But before she was a feminist hero, she was a blue-collar insurgent. And before that, she was the establishment heir-apparent. Clinton was -- is -- all those things, and there are women, union members, and inside-baseballers who are disappointed at her loss. Some may in fact be so angry that they will not support Obama, though, as Walter Shapiro notes, history suggests they will likely put their resentment aside as November approaches. But regardless of whether they vote Obama or McCain, polling shows these are not the blocks of voters Obama still needs to win over.

Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but the data is here on Earth.