On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, pundits were pontificating about the demise of the Clinton campaign. Then a strange thing happened on the way to the polling station. Women turned out in record numbers, throwing their support behind candidate Clinton. By the time the final votes were tallied, Hillary Clinton emerged victorious, was dubbed the "Comeback Kid", and pollsters were left scratching their heads, trying to demystify the pre-election miscall.
In the days leading up to Tuesday's primary, a large percentage of women voters in New Hampshire declared themselves "undecided." Last Saturday in Manchester, Lifetime Television/Every Woman Counts Coalition hosted its "If I Were President" Forum and Breakfast. A cross-section of participants included Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH); Sharon Sykas, President, National Federation of Republican Women; the New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women; and women from national organizations such as Independent Women's Forum, among others. A straw poll was conducted at the forum, although the results were not officially released, indicating that almost fifty percent of women were undecided.
The verdict is mixed as to exactly what factors swayed women away from one candidate and toward another. Observers in one camp point to Sen. Clinton's emotional moment on Monday, when she choked up during an appearance at a New Hampshire coffee shop, pleading for her candidacy. On Good Morning America, hours after her victory speech, Sen. Clinton gave live interviews from her home in Chappaqua and attributed the stealth turnaround to her efforts at connecting with constituents and to changes in her style. In her own words, "Over the past week, I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice." Still others suggest the reversal of fortune was issue-driven, since Sen. Clinton has expressed concern over middle-class issues such as student loans.
What remains clear is that women played a pivotal role in Sen. Clinton's victory. Whereas women in Iowa had been evenly divided between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama, women in New Hampshire supported Sen. Clinton 47 percent versus 34 percent in Iowa, and her supporters included older and working-class voters. The three most important issues identified by voters are the economy, the war in Iraq and health care.
The phenomenon in the New Hampshire primaries is best characterized as the "gender gap." A gender gap is defined as the difference in the proportion of women and men supporting a given candidate. In the New Hampshire primary, women outvoted men 57 percent to 43 percent. Earlier today, in an email exchange with Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, she pointed to the 17 point gender gap with 46 percent of women and 29 percent of men supporting Sen. Clinton. Ms. Walsh wrote, "In an election where less than 8,000 votes separated the winner from the loser, this women's vote clearly made the difference. If this level of interest continues, the women's vote could well determine the Democratic nominee".
Women must walk away fortified by the results of the New Hampshire primary, cognizant of the leverage at their disposal. In upcoming caucuses and primaries, women should wield this clout to their advantage, not only to keep issues they deem important on the front burner, but also to get candidates to address them.