“I’ve got a little piece of California in me,” averred Barack Obama, staking a modest claim to what was rapidly emerging as the most precious piece of real estate in Super Tuesday’s primaries. The state’s First Lady was far more effusive in her assessment. “If Barack Obama was a state, he’d be California,” declared Maria Shriver in a fit of Kennedyesque munificence. “I mean, think about it: diverse, open, smart, independent, bucks tradition, innovative, inspiring, dreamer, leader.”
At the time, Shriver’s endorsement seemed prophetic, offered as it was at the ultimate “girl power” rally, headlined by Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, aimed at Hillary Clinton’s most treasured constituency in the heart of what has long been considered–next to New York and Arkansas–her political backyard. With Ted Kennedy barnstorming across the state, wooing Latino voters in execrable Spanish, and a flurry of polls repeating the now-familiar election-eve pattern of surging Obama momentum, the Clinton “firewall” was beginning to look precarious. In the end, however, conventional wisdom and established strength triumphed at the ballot box. It was about women and Latino voters, after all, and they came out in large numbers on election day to award Hillary Clinton the state by a ten-point margin.
In many ways the California results marked the triumph of tribalism, with each constituency–blacks, Latinos, women, blue-collar workers, Asian-Americans, the young and the old–picking its side. But lost in the horse-race punditry, which thrives on slice-and-dice demographic calculations, are the darker implications of such herdlike behavior for both candidates.
According to the exit polls, women–55 percent of the primary voters–favored Clinton by a staggering 59 to 34 percent over Obama. Hillary’s estrogen base is undoubtedly an unqualified asset for her campaign. (No one, for example, worries that having so many women supporters makes her the “female candidate.”) But few are paying attention to the flip side of that gender equation. When it comes to gender gaps, the candidate who should be worried by the California results is Clinton, not Obama.
On the face of it, men seemed to split almost evenly between the two candidates, but the numbers (skewed by her across-the-board Latino support) disguise a disconnect with white men, who chose Obama by an astounding twenty-point margin. And California’s male pro-Obama tilt reflects a national 50-to-44 percent split in his favor.
This male gender gap isn’t new. “In particular, Hillary Clinton seems to turn off younger and moderate to conservative male Democrats. As many as one in five of them say there is no way they will support the former First Lady for the nomination,” wrote the Pew Research Center’s Andrew Kohut in his explanation for the strong pluralities of men who voted for Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire. This resistance, however, if it persists, bodes ill for Clinton’s future, especially in a general election, where women traditionally play a less decisive role. As Linda Hirshman recently pointed out in the New York Times, “With the possible exception of 1996, women have never voted a candidate into the White House when men thought the other guy should win. In the 2004 election, there was a gender gap in virtually every demographic–among old folks, married people, single people, squirrel hunters–but the gender gap still did not offset the robust men’s vote.”