The Great Snipe Hunt of 2008
Tracking the much discussed Hillary-turned-McCain voters.
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.