An irony of Hillary Rodham Clinton's political career is that the women who resemble her most have often appeared to support her the least.
Hillary Clinton's surge in the polls is largely due to support from women with college degrees.
From her first New York Senate race in 2000 to her presidential campaign this year, Clinton has connected effectively with blue-collar and working-class women. "They think she is tough and smart and gets their lives," says veteran Democratic consultant Celinda Lake, who is polling for presidential hopeful Joseph Biden and has also conducted surveys about the race for liberal women's groups.
But college-educated and professional women -- who have more in common with Clinton -- have been a greater puzzle for her. Some view her as cold and calculating. Others think that she betrayed the ideals of feminism by remaining with her husband, former President Clinton, despite his publicly acknowledged infidelities.
"There has been a bigger hurdle to overcome with those [upscale] women," admits Mark Penn, the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Or, as Lake puts it: "It's her peers who are tougher on her."
But recent polls show Clinton dramatically gaining ground with better-educated Democratic women, both nationally and in the key early state of New Hampshire. More than any other factor, those gains explain why she has nearly doubled her lead over Barack Obama, her closest competitor, in national Gallup polls since summer, according to an analysis by Gallup for National Journal. Clinton remains very popular among downscale Democratic women, the Gallup results show, and her newfound strength among college-educated Democratic women is allowing her to cut into the core of Obama's coalition: well-educated Democrats.
Since 1968, most contested races for the Democratic presidential nomination have come down to a choice between one candidate who mainly appeals to better-educated and more-affluent voters with moderate economic positions and liberal views on social and foreign-policy issues, and a rival who relies on downscale voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative social and foreign-policy messages.
Democrats often describe these two archetypes as "wine track" and "beer track" candidates. Wine track candidates, almost always reformers with a literary sense of detachment, have included Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gary Hart in 1984, and Bill Bradley in 2000. Beer track candidates, from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 to Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000, usually offer less inspiration but greater attention to kitchen-table concerns.
That pattern quickly resurfaced in 2008 polling. Obama, with his cerebral manner, promises of political renewal, and open-collar-cool style, ran best among college-educated voters from early on. Hillary Clinton, with an appeal centered on the economic needs of working families whom she termed "invisible Americans," showed the most strength with less educated voters. (The support of John Edwards, the third major Democratic contender, varies little by class, even though his message is heavily tilted toward populist economics.)
Clinton's gender introduced a new variable to the wine/beer axis. While she runs more strongly with less educated voters than those with college degrees, she also runs better with women than men. In polls, Clinton has consistently been strongest at the point where her advantages intersect: among women without a college education. Clinton has been weakest at the point where neither advantage is present: among college-educated men. Campaign strategists for Clinton and her rivals regard the other two categories -- women with college educations and men without them -- as conflicted swing groups.
Since summer, Clinton has improved with each of these Democratic groups: Her overall average in Gallup/USA Today surveys has jumped from 40 percent in June and July to 48 percent in September and October, a trend mirrored in other national polls. Obama's support has sagged slightly over the same period, allowing Clinton to almost double her lead in Gallup, from 13 points during the summer to 24 points this fall.
Even in the summer polling, Clinton held a commanding lead among noncollege women, drawing 49 percent of them; now she has slightly stretched her advantage to 55 percent. Among men without college educations, she has modestly increased her share of the vote from 40 percent in the summer to 44 percent now; likewise, among college-educated men, still her weakest group, she has edged up from 30 percent in the summer to 34 percent now, Gallup found.
The biggest change is among college-educated women. In the summer surveys, they preferred Obama over Clinton, 35 percent to 32 percent. Now those women strongly back Clinton over Obama, 47 percent to 24 percent. "What you see is, she has strengthened her base and... broadened her constituency," Penn says.
Similar trends are evident in New Hampshire, the site of the critical first primary. In the latest CNN/WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll, released in September, Clinton attracted fully 57 percent of noncollege women and a slight plurality (39 percent) of noncollege men. And although she still wins only about one-fourth of college-educated men there, her support among college-educated women improved from about one in four last April to two in five now. In all, the survey showed her expanding her New Hampshire lead over Obama to 2-to-1.
"If she stays where she is among college women, it is going to be incredibly hard" to catch her in New Hampshire, says Andrew Smith, director of the UNH survey center. "There are not many other places for Obama to go."
What has changed? Lake thinks that the resistance that Clinton initially faced among college-educated women was largely cultural. She says that although many downscale women respected Hillary Clinton for holding her marriage together after President Clinton acknowledged his affair with Monica Lewinsky, many upscale women believed that she displayed weakness or cynical calculation in remaining with him.
"For noncollege-educated women, she made the tough decision," Lake said. "For college-educated women, she didn't do the tough thing."
But Lake thinks that Clinton's widely praised performances in the Democratic debates and her willingness to highlight her gender -- through campaign efforts such as her appearance on ABC's The View -- have rehabilitated her image as a strong leader with educated women. That, Lake believes, has allowed their enthusiasm about electing a female president to resurface.
Martha Gadberry, a consultant and former government analyst from Nebraska who traveled to see Clinton last Saturday night in Storm Lake, Iowa, represents the sort of voter whom Lake has in mind. Asked why she supports Clinton, Gadberry cited her style of leadership and emphasized personal traits more commonly associated with women than with men. "I like her communication style," Gadberry said. "She is warm but to the point. And I like her approach to leadership and being open to talking to everybody that needs to be involved."
Penn argues that Clinton's upscale support has grown mostly because the campaign debate has shifted this fall from experience to the candidates' issue agendas, such as the universal health care plan that Clinton unveiled last month.
"The differences in experience tend to be most powerful [in attracting] more-downscale, less educated [voters], and the plans for change really then reached right into the Obama constituency," Penn said.
In Lake's view, there's another reason Obama has lost support. She believes that, for college-educated women initially intrigued by him, Obama "hasn't [sufficiently] filled in" the picture of how he would govern. In the Gallup polling, Obama's support has remained steady since summer among each of the groups except college women, where it has tumbled by nearly one-third.
Smith, the University of New Hampshire pollster, and Lake agree that Clinton's connection to college-educated women isn't as strong as her hold on more-downscale women. "The college women are... going to be paying more attention to the campaigns as they go along," Smith says, "and they could be swayed by other factors."
Women significantly outnumber men in the Democratic primary electorate. And although the party has grown more upscale since Bill Clinton's presidency, noncollege voters still outnumber those with college degrees. That equation works to Hillary Clinton's advantage: Her best group (non-college women) is the largest bloc among Democratic primary voters, according to Gallup's analysis; Obama's best group (college men) is the smallest.
Blue-collar men are an obvious target for Clinton's rivals. But unless they can also reverse her gains among the well-educated women whose lives most mirror her own, she will remain difficult to catch.