The Great Snipe Hunt of 2008

Tracking the much discussed Hillary-turned-McCain voters.

Sen. Hillary Clinton

We’re going on a snipe hunt. The quarry: women who supported Hillary and, now that she’s lost, will leave the Democrats to vote for McCain. Unlike a true snipe hunt, where you never find your prey, these politically prized voters can be found. In fact, they seem to be everywhere. Hillary supporters leave angry e-mails in my inbox, and they are the topic of stories across the media spectrum, from NPR to Fox News to Slate’s “XX Factor.” Everyone’s got an anecdote. Why, just the other day, a woman told me …

Do these political snipes have as much influence over the presidential race as all the fuss suggests? I’m skeptical. Not so much because I have any clear proof that these women will turn into satisfied Obama customers—they may well not—but because the excessive coverage they’re generating reminds me of our snipe hunts in 2004. In that race, disaffected Republicans were supposed to throw over George Bush for John Kerry. Everyone seemed to know a guy poised to make this jump. At the Kerry campaign, top staffers were regularly fielding calls from big contributors who said they had ready-to-defect GOP friends on the line. Kerry should make a major push for these voters, the callers suggested. The campaign didn’t do that, because there was no one to court. In the 2004 exit polls, only 6 percent of Republicans voted for Kerry, fewer than voted for Al Gore in 2000.

At the moment, the parallel seems apt. What we know about Hillary-for-McCain voters comes from the same ready anecdotes, dubious polling, blanket news coverage, and mischief-making from the opposing party. I’m not denying that these voters exist. (They’ve even got a Web site!) I hear from them a lot. Irma, a 51-year-old Hispanic research scientist, sent a note soon after the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee came up with a solution for seating the Florida and Michigan delegations:

The Democratic party no longer respects the right of the voter to cast a vote. I know that there are thousands if not millions of people who feel just like me.  We will not be forced to cast a vote for Barak Obama. I got through the Reagan and the Bush years—I can stomach 4 years of a McCain Presidency.

I checked in with Irma recently. I’d started to hear a second wave of anecdotes about women who first claimed they’d vote for McCain but then switched back after giving Obama a second look. Irma was not one of them. She was even more opposed to Obama after hearing about his stimulus plan and what she saw as his wishy-washy position on Jerusalem. She thinks he’s an inexperienced empty suit.

Those of us who cover the presidential race love women like Irma. She has a strong point of view, and she allows us to write about conflict. This is not only entertaining, it’s where you usually find the important fights that influence electoral contests. But the task for all of us looking closely at this race is to put the anger into context.

Let’s start with the math. Clinton says 18 million people voted for her. That’s about 13 percent of the electorate. Obama wins about 80 percent of the Clinton supporters in a recent poll, which means that the coveted Clinton-for-McCain voters represent about 2.6 percent of the electorate. These voters matter only if they live in one of the 20 or so swing states—they’re not going to win Massachusetts for McCain. This means the total number of voters he needs to convince and hold onto is small. But Irma isn’t one of them; as it turns out, she doesn’t live in a swing state.

And even if Irma represents the views of swing-state Hillary supporters and hasn’t changed her mind yet, she may not remain in that camp for long. It’s true that over the last couple of months, polls that asked Clinton supporters whether they would defect to McCain found as many as 30 percent who were willing to do so. But these polls, taken in the heat of a Democratic primary fight, were meaningless. I agree with Kerry’s 2004 pollster Mark Mellman, who likens the polls of Clinton’s supporters at their keenest moment of disappointment to asking women (or men) in the middle of a heated marital argument about their Valentine’s Day plans. In the NBC post-primary poll, tempers were already cooling: Only 19 percent of Clinton supporters said they’d vote for McCain.

As my colleague Emily Bazelon has pointed out, if you’re a voter who cares about the issues Hillary Clinton championed, Barack Obama is your candidate. Now that he’s the only Democrat in the race, when he talks about the policy positions women care about, his is the only voice they hear. And he knows exactly where his target audience lives, which is the first key to convincing them. The Obama campaign has a list of the swing-state women who supported Hillary (either from their own canvassing during the primaries or because Clinton will hand over her list). They’ll be able to target them directly.

Obama is clearly trying to sound the right notes to hasten the healing process. On Wednesday, he made an impromptu stop at an eighth-grade graduation at the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago. “I want every young woman to be thinking this summer about how you are going to start hitting the books early? How are you going to start getting a leg up on high school? What books are you going to read, instead of watching TV? What kinds of new knowledge can you gain? Because what I want you to be doing every single minute of every single day is thinking about how can I make myself the best possible young woman that I can be?”

There’s already some polling that suggests that Obama is improving his standing with women. According to the latest Gallup poll, in a head-to-head matchup with McCain, Obama is now matching Clinton’s performance among women, with a 13-point lead among female voters. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama also leads McCain by seven points among white women. This is perhaps the most crucial swing portion of the electorate as a whole. George Bush won white women by 11 points in 2004. Not all white women were Clinton supporters, of course, so these polls aren’t a precise measure of Obama’s inroads into the camp of Hillary defectors. But Obama couldn’t have improved his standing with women as much has he has since clinching the nomination without a big boost from those who once supported his Democratic rival.

How will we know whether Obama continues to pick up Clinton’s previous support? The polls will tell us, and there will be other signs. Can the leaders of anti-Obama factions show that they represent real groups, rather than hyping their status to keep their places in the media spotlight? Is the McCain campaign putting money and resources into going after the Hillary voters it claims to be courting? Or is this a sleight of hand designed to trick Obama into defending his base so that he doesn’t have time to go after independent voters?

The Nobama Hillary Clinton voter may prove to be more enduring than my skepticism suggests. Heck, she may be the new Soccer Mom. In that case, welcome—the presidential campaign needs a new cliché each cycle, and we’ve already used up the Office-Park Dads and NASCAR voters. Now all we’d have to do is come up with a new name. Nobama Mama? Send your better suggestion to me at slatepolitics@gmail.com so we’ll be ready if it turns out these voters really do have a big role to play.