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Palin's appeal to white women

What is it about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that appeals to women voters? The BBC's Paul Moss has been finding out in the US state of Illinois.

Sarah Palin in Anchorage, Alaska, 13 Sept
Many women admire Mrs Palin for her hard work as a mother-of-five

It was hard to tell who was most disappointed. A torrential downpour meant the American football game at Barrington High School had to be cancelled.

The kids stared at the cloudy skies and grumbled. But some of their mothers seemed even more crestfallen.

"We look forward to the game," one told me. "Everyone gets really into it, screaming, yelling. It is disappointing."

I had travelled to Barrington, out in Cook County, Illinois, to meet some of America's "football moms" - the army of women who turn out every weekend across America, to cheer on their sporting sons and daughters.

They are loyal, they are dedicated. And now, many of them are also big fans of Sarah Palin.

"She says it like it is," I was told, a common description of the young governor from Alaska. "She's hard-working, and I think she has strong moral values."

Mrs Palin's large family formed the basis of many compliments from the "football moms".

"She's doing great things, supporting her church and supporting her family. Five children is a lot in this day and age."

'Pioneer woman'

This is all sweet political music to the ears of the US Republican Party. The choice of 44-year-old Mrs Palin as its vice-presidential candidate was always meant to secure the support of women voters, as well as religious conservatives.

WHITE WOMEN VOTERS' SWING
ABC/Washington Post: 7 Sept - 53% for McCain, 41% for Obama (20 point swing to McCain since 22 Aug)
NBC/Wall Street Journal: 9 Sept - 52% for McCain, 41% for Obama (11 point swing to McCain since Aug)
Quinnipiac University: 9 Sept - Pennsylvania, 5 point swing to McCain since 26 Aug; Ohio, four point swing to McCain since 26 Aug; Florida, two point swing to Obama since 26 Aug

And since she appeared on the scene, some polls have shown white women swinging away from Democrat Barack Obama to Republican John McCain.

One, an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted earlier this month, suggested Mr McCain's standing with white women had improved by 20 points since Mrs Palin was brought on board.

"Women see themselves reflected in her image," according to Christine Dudley, a long-time Republican campaigner, based now in Chicago.

She argues that to understand Mrs Palin's popularity, you have to realise that the US still sees itself as a nation of frontier dwellers.

"Here is a woman in the most remote of states, she shoots guns and fishes... she really is a pioneer woman in the modern sense."

Sore point

But Mrs Palin's claim to champion the position of women is not universally welcomed among America's feminists.

It is true that some have argued the very fact of her candidacy is a step forward for women's equality.

Nancy Matthews
Nancy Matthews says Mrs Palin appeals to American notions of individualism

But Nancy Matthews, a professor of Women's Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, sees her appealing more to American notions of individualism.

"You have people who say they believe that women should have the right to be in all kinds of positions in government, but that won't carry over into the ideology of the women's movement," she argues.

The fact that Mrs Palin is against women's right to an abortion (unless the mother's life is at risk) is a particularly sore point for Professor Matthews and other feminist writers. Mrs Palin, they argue, stands for traditional values, not for social change.

But faux-feminist or not, Sarah Palin undoubtedly presents a challenge to the Democratic Party.

It is really impossible to that at the end of the day, Hillary [Clinton] voters or independent voters are going to look to Sarah Palin as somebody they believe in
Lisa Madigan
Attorney general for Illinois

It normally polls better among women than men, a trend that Mr Obama was continuing. The party needs to win them back, if they are going to have any chance of victory in November.

"What's critical, as far as Democrats are concerned, is that they stay focused on issues," says Lisa Madigan, attorney general for Illinois.

The war in Iraq, energy policy - these are the areas she believes will expose Mrs Palin as lacking sufficient knowledge for the job.

"It is really impossible to believe," Ms Madigan says, "that at the end of the day, Hillary [Clinton] voters or independent voters are going to look to Sarah Palin as somebody they believe in."

But it is not so impossible to believe, if you listen to the football moms of Barrington High. I asked Mrs Palin's supporters there if there were any specific policies of hers they admire. None could name a single one, but that did not seem to dampen their admiration.

"She's interesting, she's hard-working," I was told. "I think she's going to do a great job."

The radio version of Paul Moss's report ran on BBC Radio 4's World Tonight programme, on Monday 15 September.


Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
365
McCain - Republican
173
Select from the list below to view state level results.

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