October 27, 2008

Atiya Kai Stokes-Brown

LEWISBURG, Pa. – Sarah Palin’s wardrobe made headlines last week after the revelation that the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 on clothing for the Alaskan governor and her family to wear on the campaign trail.

The reaction to Palin’s designer suits and shoes, which continued this week, largely was partisan, with some arguing that dressing the part is a necessity for a vice presidential nominee and others calling it excessive.

Beyond outward appearance, however, recent polls show Palin’s persona and message are not resonating with voters – particularly women voters – the way the GOP gambled they would, noted Atiya Kai Stokes-Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Bucknell University who studies political engagement of women, Latinos and other disenfranchised groups. || Read the Atiya Kai Stokes-Brown profile || Upcoming political discussion

Race and gender
“Clearly, there is a sense she’s done more harm than good” for her running mate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Stokes-Brown said. “Sure, she has shored up the (conservative) base, but when you get beyond the primary, your job is to get to the middle. You should already have shored up your base.”

Race and gender have figured prominently in the 2008 presidential campaign, with Sen. Hillary Clinton garnering some 8 million supporters before losing the Democratic Party nomination to Sen. Barack Obama, whose father was African-American, and Palin becoming the first Republican woman to land on a presidential ticket.

But women voters, in particular, have been far from predictable in this campaign, and Latino voters are all but off the radar, Stokes-Brown noted. Clinton supporters at first were reluctant to shift support to her intra-party rival, Obama, but the McCain-Palin ticket has failed to draw away a significant number of female Clinton supporters, the recent polls show.

Beyond race and gender
Reaction to Palin probably has less to do with gender than with that fact that the economy is the overriding issue in this presidential election, Stokes-Brown said. She surmises party strategists underestimated women voters, who seem to be less motivated by gender than issues.

“I am constantly amazed that (party strategists believe) if you engage in one kind of tactic (to attract a certain kind of voter), it’s supposed to capture all of that group,” Stokes-Brown said.

Appealing to voters based on gender or race discounts diversity among those groups, she said. Women who supported Clinton would not necessarily have the same affinity for Palin or another female candidate, Stokes-Brown said. Experience, values, socio-economic factors and, most of all, policies come into play, too.

Diversity of women
“You cannot deny the diversity of women,” Stokes-Brown said. “We all use different criteria and life experience to make judgments about politics.”

Palin’s status as the mother of five children ages 17 and younger attracts some female supporters while alienating others, Stokes-Brown said. But the party platform is paramount.

“There are some women who have no problem with a female candidate balancing a family and raising small children and then running for the second-highest office in the land,” Stokes-Brown said. “There are others who think that’s horrible. Generally people who understand the struggles she has faced might be more supportive of Palin. But policy is important, too, so having the right person in office is the most important thing.”

And while McCain’s experience may attract women voters who view him as a “tried leader,” compared with Obama, the collapse of global markets during recent weeks has made voters more focused on issues related to their livelihood, jobs, education and health care.

“Domestic issues tend to be women’s issues,” Stokes-Brown said. “There is diversity within the group, but women are not necessarily convinced (McCain) is the best candidate for these issues. No one likes taxes. No one likes the idea that we’re going to have to invest more of our money in social security, but Obama’s message of sacrificing now and investing in the future really speaks to women.”

Economy ‘trumps everything’
The struggling economy also has turned attention away from Latinos, who were considered a swing group in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, Stokes-Brown said. Obama’s and McCain’s views on immigration also are not all that different.

In 2000 and 2004, President Bush, who is from Texas and has a Cuban sister-in-law, focused on Latinos and was able to draw many traditionally Democratic-leaning voters into the GOP.

“When the economy is bad, it can trump everything,” Stokes-Brown said. “The fact that we are different colors and genders, that’s OK, but we’re all feeling the slump in the dollar. When the economy is bad, we are thinking about how we are going to raise enough money to feed our kids. How are we going to pay the mortgage?”

Contact: Division of Communications

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