Sen. McCain's vice presidential pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has injected some much-needed energy into the Republican campaign. The risky but potentially game-changing selection provides a choice to the white and Hispanic female swing voters who may be decisive in this year's election.
Will they make Sen. Barack Obama the first black president? Or will they vote for the Republican-ticket electing, America's first female vice president? Either way, the outcome will make American history.
But, how influential is this demographic, really?
Before Gov. Palin entered the scene, Sen. Barack Obama had a 14-point advantage (51 percent to 37 percent) over Sen. McCain among women voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Sen. Obama has at least 90 percent of black women firmly in his corner.
Sen. McCain is probably targeting white women, who represent the overwhelming majority of female voters and whom he needs to shore up his white support. (Forty-nine percent versus 54 percent and 58 percent that President George W. Bush, respectively, got in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, according to a Gallup poll). Hispanics represent 24 percent of undecided voters according to a recent AP-Yahoo! News poll, so Sen. McCain may also target socially conservative Hispanic women to help close the gender gap.
Because of increased voter registration among Democrats and remaining conservative suspicions about whether he is conservative enough, Sen. McCain cannot only rely upon motivating the GOP base as President George W. Bush did in 2000 and 2004. Hence, his ticket's crossover bid for Democratic female voters who are upset with their political party because of perceived sexism within the party regarding Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) treatment during the primary and Sen. Obama's decision not to pick her as his running mate. "Hillary Clinton left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America," said Gov. Palin in her introductory campaign speech last Friday, in an appeal to Clinton supporters. "But it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can crack that ceiling once and for all."
Despite this rhetoric, it's doubtful that Sen. McCain is trying to win over most female voters. The last time a Republican presidential candidate won the majority of women voters was in 1988. Sen. McCain probably seeks to win just enough of the women's vote in order to win. He needs to increase his share of the women's vote so that it is comparable, if not better, than what President George W. Bush got in 2000 (43 percent) and 2004 (48 percent).
Sen. McCain needs to raise his support among whites to 60 percent, and he can do it by bringing more white women into his fold. This is especially true in key swing states, where Sen. McCain is currently polling a five to 20 percentage point gap over Sen. Obama among white voters.
That demographic sweet spot may catapult him to the White House. This would offset the expected increased turnout among blacks and younger voters.
That's why it is crucial for McCain to grab a significant minority share of disgruntled Sen. Clinton supporters. There are also two other groups of primarily white women McCain needs to close the gender gap: moderate Independent women and "soft" Republican women. This group has also been flirting with voting for Sen. Obama.
These are the two groups that today's woman-heavy speaker lineup at the Republican National Convention is targeting. In addition to Gov. Sarah Palin, the lineup includes Meg Whitman, former head of eBay; Carly Fiorina, former head of Hewlett-Packard; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and Cindy McCain.
Picking Gov. Palin as his running mate to reach out to women voters is a gamble for McCain for several reasons. His "twofer" pick has enabled Sen. McCain to simultaneously shore up his support with wary conservatives. But Gov. Palin's conservative track record may alienate potential swing voters. Many Hillary supporters may be turned off by Gov. Palin's pro-life views on abortion. Many center-right Independents and "soft" Republican women are also pro-choice.
Then there's the question of whether the 44-year-old governor has the credentials to step in as president should Sen. McCain, age 72, have a short presidential tenure if elected. What about her very limited foreign policy experience? What about Gov. Palin's ongoing investigation in Alaska into her firing a state official?
Of course, there is a lot for moderate women to identify with in Gov. Palin's background. She is a self-described "hockey mom" of five, she is married to a union member, and she was elected governor on a self-described "reform" platform to change Alaska political corruption. Coupled with Sen. McCain's "maverick" message, the ticket is not without its charms.
For many of these women, choice is not just about abortion. Being pro-choice means choosing which social issues to support with their tax dollars, how to plan for retirement, wanting more control over their health care and public school vouchers to provide educational choices for their children.
For these women, what Gov. Palin, Ms. Fiorina and Ms. Whitman say at the RNC may resonate. Only time will tell if the gambit works.
Shamara Riley is a freelance writer and webmaster of Booker Rising, a news site for black moderates and black conservatives based in Chicago.