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After Hillary: Bitterness?

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In the six weeks between the Mississippi and Pennsylvania primaries, the campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination deteriorated into trench warfare. When the dust cleared, Hillary Clinton won a single-digit victory in Pennsylvania, one that moved her no closer to securing the nomination. And, the struggle between Clinton and Obama left a trail of bitterness.

A recent Pennsylvania Quinnipiac poll found that 25 percent of likely Clinton voters said "they will vote for Republican Sen. John McCain in November if Obama is the Democratic candidate." This mirrors an earlier Gallup Poll that found 28 percent of Clinton voters avowed to support McCain. Given that Clinton and Obama have virtually identical positions on most issues, why would a supporter of liberal Clinton switch to conservative McCain - a reprise of George Bush?

Some of this shift is attributable to racism - voters who don't want to see a black man as President, but a substantial component may due to the angry feelings of female Clinton backers. When I talked with women who supported Clinton, I found their complaints fell into three categories:

Hillary Clinton has been subjected to gender bias. All the women felt the press has been prejudiced against Senator Clinton because she is an assertive female. They believed Senator Obama has garnered uncritical acceptance - at least until he made his infamous "bitter" comments. They noted the apparent glee with which the press - particularly MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews - greeted news of Clinton's eminent demise in the New Hampshire primary. The consensus was that the male members of the press don't like Hillary and root for her to fail.

In a January New York Times Op-Ed Gloria Steinem noted "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life." The women I interviewed shared this sentiment and noted that while it would be groundbreaking for a black man to be President, it would be even more momentous for a woman to enter the oval office. They also observed that women are more likely than men to vote - in 2004, 54 percent of all voters were women and the percentage is expected to go up - while African-Americans are approximately 11 percent of the electorate.

My contacts described Hillary Clinton as smart, experienced, and hardworking. They believed that if she were a man she would have already secured the nomination, but because of gender bias, she will now likely lose it. They noted that while Clinton is an effective speaker and has unusual command of the facts - and Obama can be a halting speaker with a distant, professorial tone - the press often describes her as shrill and condescending, while they reserve none of these descriptors for Obama. (Indeed, research on gender bias indicates successful female managers are often characterized as "more deceitful, pushy, selfish, and abrasive" than their male counterparts.)

The nomination rules are prejudiced. Several women opined the rules for the Democratic primaries are unfair and, therefore, have disadvantaged Senator Clinton. They said the rules allocating delegates for the states are so complicated few understand them and that's why Clinton won the popular vote in the Texas primary but Obama received more delegates. They observed that Clinton usually won primaries while Obama generally won caucuses because the caucus process is arcane. All were outraged that the votes of Michigan and Florida voters were not counted; from their perspective, the male leaders of the Democratic Party disallowed these results because they favored Obama. They felt women and "women's issues" have been marginalized in the Democratic Party and women rarely have power within the Party itself.

The women I interviewed noted that at the end of March, senior Democrats - all men -- called for Senator Clinton to withdraw. They felt that if it had been Senator Obama who was behind, rather than Senator Clinton, there would not have been this rush to prematurely end the competition.

There's no likely female Presidential candidate in the wings. The most common complaint was the most poignant: women have waited 88 years for a female President and, if Senator Clinton loses the competition for the 2008 Presidential nomination, they may have to wait many more years. The women I interviewed observed that Hillary Clinton is by far the strongest female candidate to emerge in their lifetimes and they do not expect another comparable female contender to emerge in the near term.

In summary, the women I talked to are upset: they see Hillary Clinton as the best chance to have a female President in their lifetime; and the feel the Democratic leadership has disenfranchised them. Some of them are angry enough to consider voting for John McCain. They are bitter.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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