The Monitor's View

The 'women's vote' and Clinton

Will affirmative voting lead to the first woman president? Look for an answer in the exit polls.

If Hillary Clinton wins any of the primaries on Super Tuesday, exit polls will reveal how much her victories relied on voter preferences for a woman. And if that electoral edge among women then puts her in the White House, America will stand in a new era of affirmative action by ballot – for the top job.

Mrs. Clinton disclaims any such thing. "Neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign," she says. Still, on the campaign trail she reaches out to women's groups. And her chief strategist, Mark Penn, said women will launch Clinton into the presidency.

So far, Mr. Penn has been partly right. In New Hampshire and Nevada, Clinton won both contests in part because she outpolled Barack Obama in the women's vote. However, in Iowa (where most voters were white) and in South Carolina (where most voters were black), Obama won the women's vote.

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National polls give Clinton an extra eight points or so because many women make gender the determinative factor in their choice. Such an advantage matters even more because about 58 percent of Democratic voters are women. And women vote at higher rates than men.

At the least, candidates must address women's diverse interests, which tend to focus on issues closest to home, such as healthcare.

One motivator in granting women a leg up in politics and business is the idea that a woman leader governs differently than a man, bringing new perspectives and helping other women. One of the boldest efforts to promote women took effect last month in Norway. A 2003 law there requires all publicly traded companies to have 40 percent of board directors be women by Jan. 1.

This legal quota met with strong resistance from (male) business leaders, who claim directors have long been chosen by merit alone. But the perception of a glass ceiling (about 6 percent of directors were women) led to this imposed short-cut to equality. (In the US, about 15 percent of directors are women.)

Most of Norway's 487 corporations scrambled to find women who know something about their business. So far, investors aren't fleeing Norway. In fact, many of the new directors are better educated and more international than the male directors. Still, it's too early to tell if the country's businesses will gain from female leadership or if such a quota simply creates a corporate climate of resentment over a perceived erosion of meritocracy.

Such quotas, however, would probably be unconstitutional in the US, where there's even a voter backlash against the use of gender and racial "preferences" at the state level. Five states – Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma – may be the latest to have anti-affirmative action measures on the ballot this year.

Voting for women candidates because they are women isn't, of course, mandated affirmative action. But as Clinton's public ambivalence about playing to the "you go, girl" sentiment shows, it is difficult for many voters not to use the power of the ballot to boost a woman.

The feminist movement has been about removing gender considerations in government and the workplace. The exit polls after this 22-state Democratic contest will indicate how many women think that objective has been achieved.

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