Chelsea Clinton is incredibly naïve, incredibly sheltered, incredibly in denial or maybe a bit of all three. In late March, Hillary Clinton's daughter told a North Carolina Young Democrats audience that she was shocked at the nasty things some male (and even female) folk on the campaign trail are saying about her mother, such as "Iron my shirts," and "the nutcracker in your …" The vulgarities are heaped on top of the hard-headed belief of many men and women that a woman just doesn't have the right stuff to be the nation's commander in chief.
Chelsea would have gotten a healthy lesson in Sexism 101 if she had glanced at polls, and that includes a CBS News poll taken just a week before her talk, that have consistently shown that far more Americans have a bigger problem voting for a woman for president than an African American.
The worst part of this is that if any one dared make a racial crack about Barack Obama, they'd be pounded into the sand. Yet, blatant sexist and anti-woman remarks are routinely spewed out, often unchallenged and even cackled at. Though more said they have heard more racist cracks in the past few months than sexist cracks in the CBS News poll, they were less likely to be offended by the sexist ones than the racist ones.
The big worry for the Clinton camp is not the sexist innuendoes, wisecracks and even the double standard for gender and race on the campaign trail but how many voters it might scare away from Clinton in a head-to-head showdown with John McCain. There's good reason for the scare.
The gender gap was first identified and labeled in the 1980 presidential contest between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. That year, Reagan got more than a 20 percent bulge in the margin of male votes over Carter. Women voters, by contrast, split almost evenly down the middle in backing both Reagan and Carter. Men didn't waver from their support of Reagan during his years in office. Many of the men who backed Reagan made no secret about why they liked him. His reputed toughness, firmness, and refusal to compromise on issues of war and peace fit neatly into the stereotypical male qualities of professed courage, determination and toughness.
The gender split is always apparent when there's a crisis such as a brush-fire war, a physical conflict or the threat of a terrorist attack. Even before he took office, pollsters noted that far more women than men openly worried that Reagan would get us into a war. This was not a major concern for men. The divergence between men and women on the issue of war and peace showed up again in even more stark contrast two decades later on the Iraq war. Polls showed gaps of nearly 20 percent between men and women when asked how long they thought American troops should stay in Iraq. Far more women than men said that the troops should be withdrawn as quickly as possible.
The huge spread in male and female views on public-policy issues was just as pronounced in the terrorism war. More men than women by nearly 20 percent took a harder stance against nations that they perceive back terrorist groups.
In countless surveys, polls and anecdotal conversations, women say they are less likely to stay up on political issues than men, and are more likely to vote for a candidate based on personal likes or dislikes than men. When asked what they liked about Clinton, many women reflexively said they liked her toughness. That's generally considered a rough-and-tumble male quality.
The issues of war, national security, strong defense and terrorism don't totally explain the constant 15 to 20 percent gender gap between men and women on candidates and issues in elections noted as far back as 1980. Another possible explanation for that is how men and women perceive the messages that male candidates convey and whether they use code words and terms to convey them.
GOP presidential candidates and presidents in past decades have at various times skewered social programs and nakedly played the race card in presidential campaigns beginning with Goldwater in 1964. Since then, other Republicans at times artfully stoked male rage with racially charged slogans like "law and order," "crime in the streets," "welfare cheats" and "absentee fathers." Bush's John Wayne-frontier brashness and get tough, bring-em'-on rhetoric about Iraq and the war against terrorism was calculatingly geared to appeal to supposed male toughness.
The endemic sexism buried deep in the skulls of many American voters alone won't sink Clinton. It's just simply another X factor for Clinton that Obama and McCain don't have to worry about.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House" (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).