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Mythical 'X-factor'

| Sunday, April 8, 2007

This may be the smallest sampling in the history of political polling but I recently asked three liberal women friends whom they preferred among the Democrat hopefuls. Their answers were Obama, Obama and Obama.

"Not Hillary?" was my follow-up. All the respondents bristled at the suggestion that they might back Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. They rejected the idea as dated.

Now we've been hearing in many Democrat quarters that women will propel Clinton into the White House: Women were 54 percent of the voters in 2004, and 59 percent of women view Clinton favorably. Fill in the blanks.

Clinton campaign advisers Mark Penn and James Carville now talk of an "X-factor," which will produce "an explosion of women" voting for Hillary.

That's an amusing bar conversation but one not rooted in the laws of logic. It's entirely possible that most women like Clinton, but like Sen. Barack Obama or someone else better. Furthermore, the assumption that women voters favor women candidates is highly questionable.

Women do tend to vote for female contenders. But that doesn't necessarily translate into a gender preference, explains Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at Brown University who studies women candidates. What happens, she says, is that women are more likely to vote for Democrats and women candidates are more likely to be Democrats.

Lawless believes Clinton actually will face challenges in attracting women primary voters. For starters, all the candidates are Democrats, so the party-label advantage goes away.

"Women tend to prefer outside candidates," Lawless says. "Hillary Clinton is not the outside candidate. She's the establishment candidate." Women are also more likely to back liberal candidates. "Clinton's by far not the most liberal of the bunch."

That's not to say that women are totally gender-neutral in placing their votes. All things being equal, they show a slight bias for the woman, Lawless says. But all things are rarely equal.

In Europe, there's the interesting case of Segolene Royal, the Socialist trying to become the first woman president of France. It was assumed that women voters would flock to this mother of four -- and at first she polled well among them.

But her numbers started heading downward as she proved herself gaffe-prone. Royal's complaints that latent sexism is hurting her cause have gotten on a lot of nerves, including female ones, as do her constant references to motherhood.

It is noteworthy that French women are telling pollsters that they wish their female candidate could be someone more like Hillary Clinton, whom they consider a strong figure.

Polls show Hillary Clinton retaining a solid lead over Obama and John Edwards, her strongest challengers at the moment. At this early stage, of course, the numbers could reflect name recognition as much as anything else.

Lawless thinks that Clinton could do better among women in a general election than in the primaries. Election Day is when moderate and independent women will be out in force. As for any "X-factor," that's pretty much non-Xistent, though a fun concept to throw around.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal.

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