Whitman and women: How gender plays in the campaign

A News Analysis

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman needs YOUR vote. Especially, if you’re a woman.  

Women will make up the majority of likely voters in this year’s election – about 51 percent to 49 percent, by most estimates – and Democratic contender Jerry Brown has the bulk of their support. The latest survey by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 47 percent of women voters supporting Brown, with only 32 percent opting for Whitman.

Women are a crucial target for Republican candidates, who are not known for pioneering women’s issues, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book and long-time Republican political strategist. Hoffenblum believes a Republican candidate in California can’t expect a win without the support of Latinos and women’s groups.

“Women consider the Republican Party the white man’s Party, the Party of their bosses…When you’re talking about the women’s vote you’re talking about women who in the past have not voted Republican,” said Hoffenblum.

But the stereotype that the Republican Party is male-dominated is turned on its head by the fact that a female candidate is now the GOP’s top nominee for the most important office in California.

The Republican Party may not be known for emphasizing social issues, but it is known for finding its niche in economic issues. Talk of job creation has dominated this year’s gubernatorial campaign with scant reference to gender.

“The economic issue seems to have less of a gender difference and this year the gender gap will be less because the issue is jobs,” said Tony Quinn, a long-time Republican political strategist and a co-editor of the Target Book. The Target Book handicaps the state’s Congressional and legislative races and is widely used by political professionals.

But despite Whitman’s repeated promises for job creation, her numbers dipped considerably since she was put on the hot seat for her employment and firing of undocumented worker Nicandra Diaz Santillan, Whitman’s housekeeper of nine years.  Whitman fired her in 2009 as she began her campaign for governor. The disclosure hurt Whitman, who had repeatedly criticized employers who hire illegal immigrants.

“I think that the housekeeper issue is turning up at this time to be a defining issue in what looks like a shift in (support) from more than one survey,” said Quinn. When it comes to poll results, “you find a dramatic change between pre-housekeeper and post-housekeeper.”

Jerry Brown absorbed heat when someone from his campaign was overheard calling Whitman a “whore” in a private conversation taped by a voicemail device. But despite the slur – and Brown’s dubious handling of it in the third statewide debate – Brown’s polling numbers remained relatively unharmed. In part, that may be because Brown has long been supported by Democratic women’s groups, in part it may be the slur sounded as if it came from a woman’s voice.

Perhaps more interesting than the slur was the response from the National Organization for Women.

NOW initially reprimanded Brown, with NOW President Terry O’Neil labeling the comment as “hate speech” and asking Brown to fire the person who used the word.

But that request was quickly rescinded amid miscommunication from the national and state NOW organizations.

O’Neil also confirmed in an interview with a blogger that the term “political whore” correctly described Whitman’s actions.

The action by the national NOW organization left those in the California NOW group scratching their heads.

“National responded without all of the information,” said Patricia Bellasalma, president of the California NOW.

“’Hate speech’ was an inappropriate way of describing it…Of course we live in a patriarchal world so that the language that has developed has histories of sexual connotations but Joan Walsh spoke very eloquently about the degendering of the term “whore” and particularly when used with the adjective “political,’ ” said Bellasalma.

The tussle between NOW and Brown’s campaign over the “whore” comment was ultimately defined as little more than a miscommunication with National headquarters and NOW has stood by its endorsement of Brown.

But while Brown’s numbers remained fairly consistent before and after the circus of sidebar issues, Whitman’s numbers among women have dropped in over four different polls.

The limelight may have been more forgiving to Brown’s character during the slur incident because he did not make the slur himself.

But Whitman’s gender may have elicited a disproportionate amount of character criticism through the housekeeper saga because of a political double standard, said Amy Siskind, president of The New Agenda, a national political group focused on electing women to office.

The Whitman campaign declined to discuss gender issues with Capitol Weekly and referred Siskind to the newspaper for comment.

 “There is this bias against women with corporate experience,” said Siskind. Whitman, a billionaire, is the former chief executive of eBay.

Siskind also criticized California’s Democratic women for emphasizing policy over gender representation.

“Democratic women are doing a disservice in this campaign. Some of the worst sexism in your state comes from women,” said Siskind, who is based in New York.

Whitman’s campaign noted that it did not share Siskind’s idea of a political double standard, and declined to respond to any suggestion that Whitman was under siege because of her gender.  

“I’m like six issues past this…we’re comfortable with the way the polls are trending,” said Whitman campaign spokeswoman Andrea Rivera.

“It’s (the campaign)  been a character assassination from the beginning,” Rivera said, adding that the PPIC’s polling methods were not as sound as those of the Whitman campaign.

“Women candidates do face a double standard when it comes to issues about how they conduct their domestic households and family relations. There have been many prominent examples of women candidates put down by nanny-gate allegations,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonprofit and nonpartisan political reform group.  

But as emotionally charged as the Diaz Santillan incident was, “my sense is that women voters respond less to emotional appeals and more to perception about the strength of character and positions on issues,” said Feng.

If the PPIC findings stand, Whitman’s positions on key issues are not in sync with women voters with less than one week to go before Election Day.

But in the volatile environment of a political campaign that’s a big if.

That doesn’t mean that women voters are necessarily rallying around Brown or that Brown remains entirely untouched by the recent melodrama. More than half those surveyed, 55 percent of likely voters, said they weren’t satisfied with either candidate, up six points since September.

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