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Sarah Palin: A Risky Move and A Gift to the Women's Movement

by Jo Freeman

Thank you, John McCain!

Never thought I would say those words, but McCain's selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin was a godsend to the women's movement.
With Hillary out of the picture, there was a serious possibility that women and women's issues would be ignored in the 2008 election. After all, there are so many other concerns fighting for air time from the candidates. Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, housing, climate change, budget deficits ....the list goes on and on.  The Bush Presidency has left us holding so many problems that "women" could well have dropped to the bottom of the list.
Not now.
Women have been roughly 60 percent of the Democratic base since 1980.  Since anyone who looks at the platforms of the two parties knows that women's interests (well ... the feminist view of women's interests) are best served by the Democrats, the Party has tended to take the women's vote for granted.
There's been a lot of talk in the last few years about how the Democrats need to appeal to men more, because white men are more likely to vote Republican.  McCain's selection of a woman as a running-mate puts the women's vote into play.
His choice for VP indicates that he thinks he can shave off a piece of that population who are still unhappy with how Hillary was treated.  It's a small piece, but a small piece of a large population is still a lot of votes. It was a bold choice.  A brilliant choice.  A risky choice.
It's also a sign of desperation. Politicians don't make bold, risky choices, unless they think they have a lot to gain, or a lot to lose.
The first rule in choosing a vice presidential candidate is do no harm.  Don't pick anyone who might turn off a portion of the electorate.  When McGovern's first choice for running-mate in 1972 turned out to have been treated for depression, he was quickly replaced.  In 1972, any history of mental illness was a turn-off  (though we now know that many Presidents have suffered from depression, especially one of our greatest — Abraham Lincoln). 
That's one of many reasons why Obama couldn't choose Hillary Clinton.  Hillary hold-outs won't face the fact that there is a strata of the voting population who thoroughly dislike her, in addition to those who feel the same way about Bill.  Those voters didn't count for much in the Democratic primaries, but they will in November.
Obama didn't need the Clinton baggage. This is a Democratic year.  Because the election is his to loose, he needed to chose someone safe to run with. Senator Joe Biden was a very traditional, safe choice. Sarah Palin isn't.
Besides her gender, she has the additional virtue (from a Republican perspective) of being very conservative on all the issues which appeal to the Republican base — the voters Republicans are afraid will stay home on election day because McCain doesn't agree with them on absolutely every thing.  The McCain campaign clearly hopes that having Palin on the ticket will encourage Democratic base voters to stay home (or even vote for McCain in order to vote for a woman) and Republican base voters to come out in droves.
Is this likely to happen?
Walter Mondale made an equally risky choice when he chose Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman to run for Vice President on a major party ticket in 1984. It was a bold, risky choice in a Republican year.  Ferraro was attacked viciously by Republicans, who particularly went after her husband's finances. 
Like Hillary's 2008 run for President, Ferraro's 1984 run for the second spot brought all sorts of sexism out of the closet.  It was an eye-opener for everyone. In the end, this bold, risky choice didn't seem to affect the outcome.  The exit polls showed that having a woman on the ticket was a prime concern for only a few. These voters about equally divided between those who told pollsters that they voted for a woman and those who said they voted against one.
Ferraro's candidacy had a bigger effect on those who answered the annual polling question (in a different poll):  Would you vote for “a well-qualified woman of your own party for President”? After Ferraro a party gap appeared. Republicans were 50 percent more likely than Democrats to answer "No."   Republicans have continued to say they would not vote for a well-qualified (but unnamed) woman for President at a much higher rate than Democrats.
Wonder what they will tell the pollsters this year?


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