Why the Clinton campaign is targeting white suburban women
KAREN KATZ has campaigned for the Democrats at every general election since Robert F. Kennedy’s fateful bid for the presidency in 1968. Now aged 70, she had planned to sit out this year’s campaign. But she became alarmed by the number of women in her suburb of Philadelphia who said they were going to vote for Donald Trump. So in August, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign opened an office in Bucks county, one of four “collar counties” that surround Philadelphia, Ms Katz volunteered to work the phones three evenings a week. “It’s exhausting,” she says. “But I’ve got two daughters and I’m doing this for them.”
This has put Ms Katz at the centre of one of the election’s biggest battles. Mr Trump’s lead over Mrs Clinton with men, especially working-class white men, means she must win women by a big margin, which in turn means capturing college-educated white women, a group that tends to lean Republican. Suburban white women, who tend to be college-educated and thickly concentrated in battleground states, have therefore emerged as one of the most important groups of swing voters in this election.
Polls tend not to publish data about suburban white women as a distinct group, but research by NORC (formerly known as the National Opinion Research Centre) at the University of Chicago of data from the General Social Survey shows that in recent elections they have hopped between the two main parties, often by the slimmest of margins. In 2004 suburban white women narrowly voted Republican; in 2008 they voted Democratic; in 2012, Republican again.
In the battleground states, the Clinton campaign has poured resources into courting women in, for example, the suburbs of northern Virginia, which spill over from Washington, DC, the suburbs of Denver in Colorado, and outside prosperous Columbus, the capital of Ohio. In Pennsylvania, it has especially been hitting Philly’s four collar counties, where one in five Pennsylvanian voters lives. Since the Democratic National Convention in July—held in Philadelphia and not by chance—Mrs Clinton has campaigned there most weeks. She tends to talk a lot about being a mother and a grandmother when she does and particularly when she is accompanied by her daughter Chelsea. Meanwhile her campaign offices in Bucks county and elsewhere have been holding regular “women-to-women” phone banks.
In 2012 Mitt Romney won college-educated white women by six percentage points—this helped make the collar counties a toss-up. He ended up losing Bucks county to Barack Obama by only 4,000 of the 300,000-plus votes cast. Mrs Clinton is now leading with college-educated women by a much bigger margin—around 30 points—which should put her over the top there. This is a big reason why, despite Mr Trump’s success in the working-class towns in western Pennsylvania, she is up in the state by five points.
But a straw poll of women out and about in central Bristol, a town in Bucks county with quiet streets of clapboard and brick houses, seemed to justify Mrs Katz’s nervousness. Around half said they would vote for Mrs Clinton. “How could I vote for anyone else?” asked Rosemarie, a retired teacher who runs the gift shop her parents opened in 1947, which sells imported Bristol blue glass from the eponymous city in England. “She is a person of great accomplishments who wants to use that for the good of others. It drives me crazy how she is attacked and I don’t understand where it comes from. There’s a big male component.”
Others said they were conservative and distrusted Mrs Clinton. In a normal election year they would vote Republican. But Mr Trump’s crude language, especially towards women, and divisiveness had put them off. “I would vote for Romney again if he was running,” said Christine, a mother in her forties. “But he’s not so I guess I’m going to have to vote for Hillary. But there’s a lot of things about her I don’t like, like all the questions surrounding her life in Arkansas.”
A perhaps surprising number of women, given Mr Trump’s many misogynist remarks, including a recently aired recording from 2005 in which he was heard to brag about groping women, said they remain tempted by him. “We knew before the tape that he was inappropriate and disrespectful but I get that she’s lied about some things too—that’s what politicians do,” said Pam, a nurse. “Given a choice between a veteran and a newcomer, I’d like to go for the newcomer. We need someone fresh, someone new, who can take crap. I don’t know what to do. I’m going to pray about it.”
Inside the nearby Clinton campaign office, meanwhile, Mrs Katz and her fellow volunteers were hard at work, trying to make a more prosaic intervention. “I’d always voted Democrat before but never gave it much thought before now", explained Pam Fottrell, as she took a break from cold-calling voters. A retired casino manager and part-time astrologer, she described Mr Trump as arrogant, supercilious and reckless. She might know better than most. Ms Fottrell used to work for him at the Taj Mahal Casino, in New Jersey, which he owned, and ran into the ground.