STRONG GIRLS VOTE MCCAIN-PALIN read the white block letters on the baby’s pink onesie, and her mother was chanting “Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!” on a gorgeous morning in Van Dyke Park in Fairfax, Virginia. They were two in a crowd of 15,000—a number, oh, 50 to 100 times greater than the norm for a John McCain event pre-Palin—who’d turned out for the final joint appearance of the Republican ticketmates before they temporarily went their separate ways last week. Up onstage, Sarah Palin was perched atop a pair of ruby-red heels, which seemed appropriate. Maureen Dowd may see the Alaska governor as Eliza Doolittle, but she strikes me more as Dorothy: the girl swept up in the tornado, lifted suddenly out of her black-and-white world, deposited in a Technicolor Oz.
Certainly Barack Obama and his campaign must feel as if a house has dropped on their heads. And certainly the men behind the curtain in McCain-land have done their best to enhance the pain. The pummeling has come hard and fast: accusations of sexism against Obama, Joe Biden, and their Democratic allies; contentions that Obama favors “comprehensive” sex education for kindergartners; visual allusions to the Democrats as a pack of wolves keen to prey on lovely Sarah; and, lest we forget, condemnations of the hopemonger for purportedly comparing Palin to a gussied-up porcine pretender.
All those charges were leveled in the span of 24 hours last week. It was an ugly, low, ludicrous moment, in which the howls of faux Republican outrage (“offensive,” “disgusting,” “desperate,” “disgraceful”) were deafening and the river of crocodile tears so profuse that FEMA nearly had to be called in. But it was also undeniably tactically effective, knocking Obama off-balance and off-message, getting inside his head, luring him into a losing shadow-boxing match with the Palin phenomenon rather a real fight with his real adversary—you know, um, that guy McCain.
Yet the lipstick wars were about more than tactical skirmishing to win a couple of news cycles. They were a sign that, in picking Palin as his V.P., McCain had introduced into the electoral equation a set of variables—gender, class, celebrity, ideology—at once powerful, combustible, and unpredictable. They presaged a fall campaign in which the most wretched sort of identity politics will apparently prevail. And they reflected a new strategic dynamic that may well determine the outcome: the fierce and frantic pursuit by both sides of this year’s “It” demographic, the so-called Wal-Mart moms.
Coming across as one of those moms has been the genius of Palin’s performance in her two weeks on the national stage. The biography, the family, the plainspokenness, the spunkiness, the overarching Mary Tyler Mooreness: All of it has shifted focus away from more awkward and pertinent questions. About her qualifications and readiness to become commander-in-chief. About her gubernatorial record. About the falsehoods she is brazenly peddling about her stance on the Bridge to Nowhere. About the inconsistencies between her image as an anti-earmark reformer and her history of scarfing down so much trayf that she’s at risk of trichinosis.
What we do know about Palin is that, at least for now, she has jolted the race in a way that makes her selection by McCain seem like something it was not: a carefully wrought, exquisitely calibrated maneuver. The effect of her arrival in the mix has been evident and advantageous to her boss in every national post-GOP convention poll. And it’s been particularly salutary in one area above all: McCain’s support from white female voters. According to last week’s ABC/Washington Post poll, McCain’s standing among them has improved by twenty points (from 50-42 behind to 53-41 ahead) since teaming with Palin. The numbers from the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal survey are less gaudy, to be sure, but still nothing to sneeze at: an eleven-point shift, from one point down to ten ahead.
Just how important is the XX-chromosome Caucasian demo? Incredibly, in a word. White women are quintessential swing voters, pragmatic, independent, with weak party allegiances and a tendency to break late. In 1996, with the help of those fabled “soccer moms,” Clinton carried the demo by five points and won the election by 8.5 in spite of losing the white-male vote by eleven. In 2004, George W. Bush’s appeal to “security moms” enabled him to carry white women by eleven, which made all the difference between losing the popular vote in 2000 and winning the next time around.
Among strategists and pollsters it’s the Wal-Mart moms—slightly older and more downscale than their predecessors, more culturally conservative and more attuned to economics—who look most like the pivotal swing-voting bloc in 2008. Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s erstwhile chief strategist and father of the soccer-mom coinage, goes so far as to write, “[White] women 30 and older, all the way up to age 85, will likely decide the election.”