Who made gender an issue?

Today’s question: Is gender more a media obsession or a real concern of voters? How likely is it that former Hillary Clinton supporters will break for John McCain because of Sarah Palin? Previously, Mangu-Ward and Marcotte discussed whether a socially conservative candidate could ever appeal to feminists and Gloria Steinem’s criticism of Palin.

Can Clinton fans learn to love Palin’s bouffant?
Point: Katherine Mangu-Ward

Some things, my grandmother used to say, are just not done. She was talking about stuff like taking second helpings of dessert and wearing white shoes after Labor Day. But another thing that’s not done -- by media professionals, anyway -- is admitting everyone cares just as much about the candidates’ platform shoes as their party platforms. Does John McCain wear lifts? Inquiring minds want to know!

Give the media some credit, I suppose. They could boost ratings or circulation by commissioning polls on the impact of McCain’s oddly lumpy face, Barack Obama’s oddly snug jeans, Sarah Palin’s oddly poofy hair, or Joe Biden’s ... oddly poofy hair.

The fact is, people of both sexes frequently choose their candidates for illogical reasons. Recent chatter suggests that Obama may be “too thin to win.” Having spent most of my life inside Washington’s Beltway, I’m going to let Times readers in on a little secret: Just because Washington is Hollywood for ugly people doesn’t mean we’re any less obsessed with the superficial.

Chatter while watching a convention speech or a debate performance with serious journalists is often indistinguishable from the E! channel’s red-carpet coverage. Glamour magazine may have done the original retrospective on Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, but every single one of the mainstream cable news channels and most major papers picked it up. ABC News even one-upped Glamour with a look back at her hairdos.

So, will Clinton voters break for Palin? Well, the obvious place to start is the polls: Before the Democratic conventions, white women -- Clinton’s base -- were 50% to 42% in Obama’s favor. This week, white women are 53% to 41% for McCain, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. So Clinton supporters are moving in Palin’s direction, right? Not so fast. The same poll shows Clinton voters’ support for Obama holding steady at just about 70% (PDF).

Finding it hard to square the circle? That’s because it can’t be done. Just focus on the question of the bouffant versus the sensible wash-and-wear. We are irrational creatures, swayed by mysterious things -- and I’m not just talking about women here. Some people are likely to vote Palin’s ticket just because she’s a woman. Americans don’t become paragons of logic and reason when we answer poll questions or step into the voting booth.

Plus, voters are monstrously misinformed. Forty-nine percent of voters think the president has the authority to suspend the Constitution, for instance. Palin is pro-contraception -- one of the many issues I consider more important than abortion -- despite the deep conviction of many that the opposite is true. (Skeptical? Let’s go to the tape: “I am pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues.”)

Clinton voters, the women who have been with her since the pageboy ‘do, will stray back and forth several times before the election cycle is over, and some of them will settle on Palin. Who knows why? Some will have carefully constructed, well-considered reasons for their decision. Some of those reasons will be void because they’re based on bad information. And some will choose her because she seems like the kind of woman who doesn’t give a damn about wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

Voters aren’t that stupid
Counterpoint: Amanda Marcotte

I think I might have a little more faith in the average voter than you do, Katherine. Yes, people are ignorant of those things they should have learned in school. But then again, are the 49% of the people who think the president has the authority to suspend the Constitution really wrong? Perhaps they’re just making an objective observation of our reality under President Bush, who flouts the Constitution and gets away with it. Look, for instance, at the flouting of habeas corpus, the suspension of the basic right to be free of search without a warrant and the president’s routine unwillingness to honor the separation of church and state guaranteed in the First Amendment. Maybe it’s the 51% who look at the letter of the law and don’t see that it doesn’t matter who are in the wrong.

A lot of the trend stories you point to as proof of the shallow, stupid voter really exemplify the shallow, stupid media instead. The Wall Street Journal piece about Obama being “too thin” is a perfect example of an odd trend I see in which media elites that live in the enclaves of New York and Washington try to guess what we, the great unwashed red-state Americans, are like. The stereotype that we’re fat and proud is only partly true -- if middle Americans didn’t appreciate a slim physique as much as coastal Americans, Jenny Craig wouldn’t make much money. Digging up two random quotes to fit a preordained belief about corn-fed voters might make jaunty prose, but it proves nothing.

The obsession with candidates’ gender is absolutely a media-driven phenomenon. The main group of voters as concerned about gender as the mainstream media might be right-wing men who become very anxious at the idea of female authority, even if it’s far away in Washington and only felt through the faceless economy and the mechanisms of the state. After them are feminists, who put a lot of money and effort toward getting more women in power, but only pro-choice, liberal women. So already, Palin has fallen off the map for them.

The media’s obsession with making a bigger deal out of what is in a candidate’s pants than his or her policy proposals is just part of the larger unwillingness to talk about actual policy in mainstream news outlets, particularly cable news networks. Surface issues rule. In part, it’s because an honest education of the public on the candidates’ major policy differences would hand this election to Obama in a landslide, driving down ratings because people wouldn’t be chewing their nails staring at the screen every minute in anticipation of what’s going to happen. The more they can talk about how cute Palin is, the less they have to educate the public about how McCain’s economic proposals would perpetuate the bad economy and how he intends to keep us in a very unpopular war.

That said, I do think that gender can subtly influence the public’s perception of a candidate, especially in a news environment with a minimum of real education on the real issues. McCain’s only hope of winning is to convince both the hard right and the moderate swing voters that he’s one of them. The hope -- and maybe this is panning out for McCain -- is that the moderate voter holds the sexist belief that women are naturally kind and empathetic, and that if a woman is a conservative, she must be a “compassionate conservative.” The Republicans won in 2000 by wrapping a right-wing ideologue in liberal clothing. With Palin, they’re trying that trick again.

Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Her first book, “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment,” is published by Seal Press.

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