With the "18 million cracks" that Hillary Clinton put in the glass ceiling this year, and then the nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as GOP vice president, the views of women voters have taken on particular importance. Last night, just before Palin's speech, NEWSWEEK 's Suzanne Smalley trolled the floor of the convention hall, asking women delegates what they expected— and wanted—to hear from Palin. Meanwhile, reporter Steve Freiss monitored two focus groups of women (married and unmarried) as they watched the speech from their home state of Nevada. Their reports:
'I Want Her to Show How Strong She Is'
by Suzanne Smalley
Ellen Jernigan is proud of Sarah Palin because, as a Republican delegate and 69-year-old councilwoman in Hernando, Miss., she knows what it takes to run a city—even a small one—in addition to a household. Angelina Burney, a 39-year-old alternate delegate from Alaska, says Palin is an inspiration to all women because she proves "you can juggle career and family and do it with a deep faith." Kaye Kirk, 49, of Oklahoma City, said she was so moved by Palin's historic vice presidential nod that she and a friend traded letters recalling their deceased mothers and "how pleased women who have been trailblazers would be" to see the first woman on the Republican ticket.
For all the evident pride Republican delegates here in St. Paul feel about Palin's rise, many of them also said they wanted her to answer critics with a speech that delivered specifics about her experience and worldview. In a series of interviews NEWSWEEK conducted with female delegates on the floor of St. Paul's Xcel Center in the moments before Governor Palin took to the stage, several argued that Palin should use her moment in the spotlight to show the country that she is not just a woman, but also a qualified woman.
Deanna Wallace, an 18-year-old from Shreveport, La., wearing pins that said "I Heart Sarah Palin" and "From the Coldest State Comes the Hottest V.P.," said that while she is thrilled to have a woman on the ticket—especially one who hunts, fishes, and mothers, in addition to governing—it is important for Palin to establish her credentials. "It's not as important that she's a woman, but that she's her—she's living next door to her constituents," Wallace said. "She's run a city and state….I really want her to get up there and show how strong she is as a candidate, not necessarily as a woman."
Joyce Shirley, a 67-year-old delegate from Fritch, Texas, said she expected Palin to "have answers for everyone." Lilliana Belardo de O'Neal of the Virgin Islands said she wanted Palin to tell the audience how "she can run this country." And Donna Bahorich, a 52-year-old delegate from Houston, marveled at Palin's thrift, saying she admires her for selling the state's jet on eBay (one of the few details Palin's speech offered about her work as governor), but admitted she wants to know more about Palin's "worldview and philosophy." Bahorich shrugged off critics who say the media has been sexist in asking questions about Palin's resume. "It's a legitimate question—let's look at experience," Bahorich said. "I hope it's a big part of her speech tonight, all she has done in two years."
Ultimately, Palin's experience and the nuts and bolts of what she did as governor were conspicuously missing from her speech, which was heavier on snark than it was on substance. Nonetheless, the crowd on the floor of the Xcel Center last night was rapturous. Would undecided female voters agree with Angelina Burney, an alternate delegate from Alaska who works for Palin and thinks it's a good thing that she's "the real deal, a woman from the soil (and) as far from the establishment as you can get?" Or does Palin, whose history is more or less a blank slate, have a long way to go before women outside of the Republican Party flock to her? Palin is expected to start campaigning without McCain by her side next week. How independent and undecided female voters are receiving her will become a lot clearer in the coming eight weeks, once the teleprompter disappears and the tough and spontaneous questions start getting asked.
'How's She Going to Help Us?'
By Steve Friess
Early on in the conversation that followed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's big speech, a 52-year-old divorcee voiced a question many in the room were wondering. "How does she have time for politics when she's raising five children?" Janet Merriman asked to nervous, empathetic laughter from the other unmarried women in the conference room. "Where's she had all this time? How can you devote the proper time to your special needs child when you're running for the vice presidency?"
Had a man asked such question of Governor Palin, they'd likely be castigated for having a sexist or partisan double standard when it comes to candidates. But Merriman is an independent, undecided female voter—who liked Sen. Hillary Clinton. That makes what she thinks, and how she ultimately decides, one of the most crucial questions in presidential politics. It's also why the every thought and word of Merriman—and about 20 other married and unmarried undecided women voters from swing-state Nevada—were being so carefully tracked as Palin delivered her acceptance speech in St. Paul on Wednesday night. The focus groups—coordinated by Anna Greenberg and Stan Greenberg of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research—were commissioned by the Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund, which describes itself as dedicated to encouraging unmarried women to join the political conversation.
Unmarried women voters tend to go 60-40 for Democrats in national elections and married voters historically end up evenly split, so Palin's ability to peel off votes in either category is important to Republican nominee John McCain's chances. "The major storyline in this election is that the Hillary-Obama drama and nomination for Sarah Palin is the fight for women's voters," said Anna Greenberg, co-owner of Greenberg, Quinlan Rosner Research.
The focus group's results were inconclusive. Palin's favorability rating rose an average of 10 points among these women versus their pre-speech views, but none of the participants said that their vote had been changed or secured.
For the most part, the groups—a dozen unmarried and a dozen married women in separate rooms based on marital status—showed little visual reaction during the speech itself. They watched stone-faced as they jotted down thoughts while Palin spoke, breaking into laughter only once over the antics of one of her children. Some squirmed a bit when the Alaska governor took her hardest shots at Barack Obama.
Maxine Gratz, 57, an Obama-leaning Republican, for instance, said of Palin's mockery of the Hollywood-like set erected for Obama's acceptance speech in Denver: "When she was saying that about the Styrofoam columns behind him, there was no need for that. That really upset me."
The participants uniformly praised Palin's style and charisma—"she seems like a common type of woman who brought herself up," said Republican-leaning 53-year-old Debbie Zampino—and gave her high marks for dispensing with the jet and chef she was due as Alaska governor. "I think she's got the Hillary Clinton kind of drive," said 54-year-old undecided independent, Dawn Liberti.
Yet most also complained Palin had omitted a topic of concern to them.
"I kept thinking, 'Will she mention going green?' but she didn't," said undecided Republican Janet McCreary, 43. "She didn't say anything about education," Stacey McGreehin, an undecided Republican-leaning independent griped. One reason the voting patterns of unmarried women are different than married women, Greenberg explained, is that unmarried women are more economically vulnerable than women in two-income households. And, indeed, there was more concern in the unmarried focus groups that Palin offered little to salve the ailing economy. Melanie Haack, 32, an undecided unmarried Democrat, was waiting for some words on child care and health care—issues of great concern to working mothers. "How's she going to help us?" Haack asked.
The group also reflected their regional bias: Palin's call for more nuclear power plants led participants to voice concerns about where the nuclear waste would be stored. The federal government has been trying for years to build a repository 100 miles outside of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain. And undecided Republican Judy Wilson, 40, was among those defensive on behalf of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when Palin took a shot at the Nevada senator. "She twists the words of other politicians such as Harry Reid," Wilson wrote in her notes during the speech.
The focus groups offered virtually no conversation about the Palin's pregnant teenage daughter or other recent flaps. Even when the moderator of the unmarried group mentioned the probe into whether the governor improperly tried to fire her trooper ex-brother-in-law, the consensus was that they needed more information about the matter. They were similarly disinterested in the fact that Palin has said that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a "task that is from God." Even some Democratic-leaning women seemed unbothered when told Palin is stridently opposed to abortion rights, with several shrugging that McCain was unlikely to pick someone who was not, like him, pro-life.
Greenberg said she was surprised by the amount the participants knew about Palin and the presidential race in general: "I'm continually impressed with the degree to which people are paying attention this year."
Merriman wasn't the only one who had female-specific questions and thoughts. One woman suggested that the way Palin pointed was "very Mommy-like." Vicki Corso, 34, an undecided Democrat, wondered "if people will respect her because she's a woman."
Another, 53-year-old Republican Debbie Zampino, thought she seemed like a "cheerleader for McCain." That prompted a rejoinder from 36-year-old single Republican Stacey McGreehin: Would you say that if it were a male candidate? I don't want a cheerleader for vice president."
The participants had been asked to jot down their thoughts, positive and negative, as Palin gave the speech. The first thing on Liberti's page? "Tina Fey will do a good impression of her on Saturday Night Live."
Fey is hosting this weekend.