BY SUSAN ESTRICH
California has never had a woman governor. Two women senators, yes, but never a governor, never a lieutenant governor, never even an attorney general. When it comes to executive power, we’re talking men here.
If you had asked me a year ago, or even six months ago, I would’ve said that this might be the year, that Meg Whitman just might do what Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown and Jane Harman couldn’t. You know, the old argument that a moderate Republican woman could be the one who would appeal not only to Republican voters, who tend to be more male, but also to independent and even Democratic women, who care about smashing glass ceilings.
It’s not happening, and it’s not for want of trying. The latest flap in a campaign that has been full of them – someone’s use of a word that rhymes with “bore” [family newspapers and all] to describe Whitman — was seized upon by her women supporters in an effort to label her opponent, Jerry Brown, a sexist. The National Organization for Women [which supports Brown] nonetheless got in on the act, demanding a better apology. Someone even managed to find and release a 15-year-old tape of Brown questioning the efficacy of mammograms [with me sitting next to him, no less, on “Firing Line”] in an effort to create a storm around gender. The storm fizzled.
Looking at the latest Rasmussen Reports poll of California voters, from just a few days ago, there’s a gender gap, all right. But it isn’t helping Whitman one bit. Among men, she and Brown are running even – at about 45%. Among women, she’s getting clobbered – 51% to 39%.
The obvious explanation is that women are more likely to be Democrats, which is certainly true. But the interesting comparison comes when you look at the Rasmussen polls in the senate race.
That race pits two women against each other – incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina. It’s hard to make gender an issue when the two candidates are of the same sex. The closest this race has come to “women’s issues” was when Fiorina attacked Boxer’s hair.
What’s notable is not the comparison of how Whitman and Fiorina are doing among women. Both are getting creamed by almost identical margins [52% to 39% in Fiorina’s case). What’s remarkable is how they’re doing among men. Fiorina is faring much better: She has a 10-point lead over Boxer.
What gives? Why are men higher on Fiorina than on Whitman? Or perhaps more accurately, why are they so much more likely to support Brown than Boxer?
The real gender gap in California seems to be that men prefer male candidates to female candidates.
You’d be hard-pressed to convince me that Fiorina is a “better” candidate than Whitman. The business people I talk to rate Whitman much higher. She’s certainly richer and has spent more money on her campaign, which is an issue. But having and spending more money usually helps and rarely hurts. In person, Whitman comes across well; Fiorina, less so.
So what’s going on with the guys? It certainly appears that, given the choice, they choose testosterone in disproportionate numbers. Could it be that there are still subtle – or not so subtle – prejudices about a woman’s ability to do the top executive job even when the woman in question is a former and very successful CEO?
Democrats have long had trouble with the male vote, instead counting on women voters to succeed. The conventional wisdom in many women’s circles has always been that the “ideal” woman candidate [speaking pragmatically] would be a Republican. Maybe that’s not so at all. Maybe what a male Democrat needs most is a woman to run against. In California, at least, gender seems to still matter, just not in the way many expected.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer