For Hillary Clinton, a funny thing has happened on the way to the Democratic nomination: one of her biggest potential handicaps—her gender—has become her biggest strength. Seeking to "smash" what she calls "the highest glass ceiling," Clinton has secured a 20-point national lead among Democrats almost solely on the basis of her support among women, who favored her by 42 points over Barack Obama in the October ABC/Washington Post survey.
But does Clinton's early advantage mean we're past gender when picking presidents? Not so fast, say experts. The Democratic primary is one thing—Dems are typically more comfortable than Republicans when it comes to voting for women. But the general election is a much different test. (Assuming Clinton gets that far: the latest ABC/Washington Post poll shows Obama ahead in Iowa, and tied among women there.) "The idea that gender won't matter in the general election is just insane," says unaffiliated Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal. "Gender brings all sorts of baggage. The big question is, is it a net plus or a net minus?"
Early signs suggest America hasn't figured that out yet. While 90 percent of the populace claims to be ready for a Madame President, a third of Americans also say that most people they know will be "less likely" to vote for Clinton because she's a woman—more than twice the number who say her gender will win her more votes, according to a New York Times poll in July. Such a gap hints that Clinton may end up, like many African-American candidates over the years, with fewer votes on Election Day than the polls predicted. Recent Gallup matchups against Rudy Giuliani show Clinton running weaker among women (6 percent over Giuliani, on average) than Gore in 2000 (8 percent over Bush). In fact, her outsize deficit among men—16 points versus seven for Gore—means that, all else being equal, she'd actually do worse than the former veep.
Clinton pollster Mark Penn has said that Clinton's gender-related strengths in the general election outweigh her weaknesses. Last month he told reporters that up to 24 percent of Republican women would support Clinton. Maybe so. But it's worth remembering that Gore in 2000 outperformed Clinton's New York numbers among Republican women by five points, and this year GOP and independent women are more willing to rule out Clinton than Obama. In other words, Clinton's camp may say she's "inevitable" in the primary, but the gender battle is far from over. In fact, it hasn't even begun.