Why Clinton voters say they won't support Obama

The attack of the PUMAs, or a dozen reasons why Clinton voters are still too angry to come home.

Published June 23, 2008 11:15AM (EDT)

If you're a dedicated Democrat -- or perhaps even one of those fed-up Republicans we've heard about -- there's a good chance you're pretty stoked right about now. After a grueling but thrilling primary contest, we at last have decided on a history-making, barrier-breaking Democratic presidential candidate. You're excited! You're inspired! You're ready to hit rural Ohio with enough campaign literature to choke a wavering independent!

But why do you keep hearing all these stories about grumpy old ladies still hung up on Hillary Clinton, the ones who're threatening to make a scene at the Democratic convention in Denver, or vote for John McCain in November?

To be fair, it's not just women. There are plenty of Clinton supporters of every demographic description who are still ticked. But yes, it's true that the Clinton base skewed female, and that women over 30 are the most vocal of the malcontents. Some of them are calling themselves "PUMAs" (as in "Party Unity My Ass"), an acronym that makes them sound, appropriately enough, like cougars in a very bad mood. Who are these women, and why are they such buzzkills?

Remember that classic of pop-psychological cheese, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus"? This offensive but rhetorically useful book (yes, I'm invoking it; address your letters of complaint to rtraister@salon.com) states that often, in conflict, women simply want to be heard. They want to air their grievances and let their opponents know where they're coming from. Now the Democratic Party is moving forward, as it must, but it is doing so without giving the Clinton women a real hearing -- without letting them vent their anger. It is the social equivalent of talking over them, waving off their complaints, assuming they'll come around. This is a mistake. This is only making things worse (even if, as Walter Shapiro notes, history says they will come around, no matter how many PUMA T-shirts and Web sites like this one may be sprouting now).

In the spirit of this kind of communication and rapprochement, I figured it might be a valuable exercise to examine the different flavors of anger that your Clinton-supporting peers may be experiencing right now. Here are a dozen reasons why some Clinton supporters are mad and are not yet ready -- even as their candidate joins him on the hustings -- to put on Barack Obama buttons.

This list is not comprehensive. It is based on interviews with women at Clinton's June 3 nonconcession speech and her June 7 concession speech, and on comments I heard from some attendees at an EMILY's List conference a week after Clinton bowed out. It undoubtedly misrepresents the feelings of any number of Hillary heads. This is merely an attempt to give space to, describe and otherwise make a record of the grievances of a number of deeply committed political people who have just had their hearts broken. So without further ado: an incomplete taxonomy of post-primary rage.

1. They are angry because their candidate lost a close contest.

This is just simple human math, and it happens after every primary showdown. Remember that it took some Deaniacs months to come around to John Kerry in 2004. It's just that most years, the contests haven't also been identity-politics duels between two underrepresented social groups vying for a chance at a political position that has always been denied them.

Another difference is just how close and engrossing this race became. It's hard to lose, especially when the finishes were often photo-worthy, when the possibility of upset lurked around every corner. And for those Obama supporters who say "Come on, it was over for months; it was an irresponsible fiction that Hillary ever had a chance," it may be useful to imagine how it might have felt to have had the candidates' situations fully reversed: Clinton winning more pledged delegates, many of them coming from caucus states and red states, Obama nipping at her heels in the popular vote and winning big states and purple states and two states whose votes weren't fully counted, Florida and Michigan. Imagine how maddening it would be to believe your candidate was the better bet in the general election but was denied the nomination by quirks of the process. You'd be pissed, right? Furious! It would be 2000 and our flawed electoral system all over again. So that's a start at imagining how an angry Clinton supporter feels -- except that you probably never saw Clinton as the underdog, so there's not the equivalent feeling of electric, explosive grass-roots momentum having been quashed. But remember that from her supporters' perspective, she spent all of primary season post-Iowa as the underdog, so they probably feel a lot more like this than you can imagine.

2. They are angry because their historic opportunity is over.

Getting excited about changing history felt awesome. I can't emphasize it enough: This had never happened before. And it was fun. Exhilarating. Hopeful. Changing. All of that. When Michelle Obama guest-hosted "The View" last week, Whoopi Goldberg told her how wonderful it was to see her face on the news all the time, because we don't often see black women like her portrayed in the media. But we had also never before seen pantsuits on the stump, had never seen a female candidate's face behind a debate podium, had never heard a woman's high-pitched forced laughter when she answered interview questions on TV. These were all novelties, and also how progress happens. Before our eyes. Now that part is over. And that makes people sad.

3. They are angry about rumors that Obama may choose a woman other than Hillary Clinton as his running mate.

This is a tricky one. Maybe some Clinton supporters remain so besotted by the idea of their woman as the history maker that they won't be satisfied unless Clinton or someone from her direct bloodline is the first female to breach the executive branch of government.

In reality, however, it's more that the other female politicians whose names are being bandied about (cough, Kathleen Sebelius, cough) seem like pallid substitutes, and the only reason Team Obama would even pick one is to placate stubborn Clinton supporters. It wouldn't placate them.

But this is one of the facets of post-Clinton anger that puts Obama in a hell of a bind. Because the truth is that many of Clinton's most devoted supporters overcame their own ambivalence about her because they believed it was so important to establish a precedent, to break the glass ceiling and put a woman in a job that has never been filled by a woman before. A female vice president, especially a Democratic one, is not nothing. And everyone who watched the glee with which Clinton's failed bid was met should know that. But it's true that if Obama goes with a woman, and decides (as seems certain) not to tap Clinton herself, he must pick someone who has something more going for her than a pair of mams. He needs someone who generates heat of her own, who can energize a crowd, who can do something for him besides providing him with a gender credential. Who is that?

4. They are angry that we started to talk about sexism only once Clinton stopped being a threat.

Yes, it's great that we are finally having panels and conferences and news stories about the way in which Clinton's candidacy was met with an enormous amount of gendered antipathy from the media. (And for any of you sitting at your computers yammering about how the coverage of Clinton had nothing to do with her sex, allow me to be frank: can it.) Those discussions shouldn't stop. But it is painfully obvious that this was a conversation that could only be had once Clinton stopped threatening Obama's prospects, or men generally. This is really depressing.

5. They are angry at the media's repeated denial of sexism, and they are angry at Keith Olbermann.

The first should be quite obvious. In a New York Times story last week, members of the media heartily denied that there was any sexism in the way that Clinton was discussed. This in the face of zillions of examples of gender-fueled language both explicit (comparisons of Clinton to a nagging spouse, to an ex-wife outside of probate court, to Lorena Bobbitt, to a sexless monster, to Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction") and only slightly more subtle (the unabashed determination on the part of print and broadcast media to put her campaign down as early as possible, and the hyperactive joy they betrayed whenever that wish appeared to be coming true). To deny that this happened is foolish, and it doesn't make any of the eagle-eyed women who spotted Tucker Carlson crossing his legs in emasculated fear any less angry.

As for Olbermann, outrage at him has supplanted displeasure with Chris Matthews, perhaps because Matthews has been publicly excoriated for his bias, while Olbermann is still held up by many as a talking-head hero of the left. Of course, those surprised by Olbermann's clear distaste for Hillary Clinton, or the venom he directed at that nutsy Katie Couric, who meekly ventured that maybe there had been some media sexism during the race, obviously missed the time he once wondered on air if anyone had ever ejaculated on Paris Hilton's face. Olbermann's simultaneous tenacity on the side of good, coupled with his utter disinterest in gender equity, makes him emblematic of the unpleasant position in which Hillary-supporting feminists find themselves -- members of a progressive party that doesn't seem particularly interested in their progress.

6. They are mad at Howard Dean.

Not simply for allowing the massive befouling of the Democratic process that was Michigan and Florida but for addressing issues of sexism only once Clinton was out of the race. Seriously, the anger at Dean may be some of the most unexpected and intense. At the recent EMILY's List conference, during a panel on gender and the election, Dean's name was the only one that got booed.

7. They are mad at Barack Obama.

This is a tough one, because it's vital to remember that many people who loved and supported Hillary Clinton for president also loved Barack Obama. They regretted having to choose between the two in the primaries and are now eagerly supporting Obama, even as they nurse their disappointment over Clinton's loss. But for some, there is lingering sting -- about the paucity of women in Obama's top advisory team during the campaign, about the way they feel the Obama campaign stained Clinton's supporters -- and Clinton and her husband too -- as racists, about the patronizing "You're likable enough" comment during a January debate. Perhaps the worst slight, in their eyes, came after Obama had secured the nomination. When he should have been smoothing ruffled feathers, he instead decided to hire Patti Solis Doyle, longtime Hillaryland denizen from whom the senator is now reportedly estranged, as the chief of staff for the yet-unnamed vice-presidential candidate. The move was either monumentally clueless or a petty "fuck you," not simply to Clinton herself but to the huge number of people still rooting for him to put Clinton on the ticket. (By the way, a personal note to these people: It's not going to happen. We need to stop talking about it. Hoping for it is only going to leave you angrier in the end.)

8. They are mad at Bill Clinton. Um, obviously.

9. They are mad at Mark Penn.

And that's for being a complete blockhead who mangled an epochal bid for the Oval Office. In a year in which it was obvious to anyone with eyes, ears or a nose that the country was dying for "change," Penn made the keen decision to sell Clinton -- a history-making candidate -- as an establishment player. But the hard truth is that anyone who wouldn't fire this guy the morning after Iowa probably didn't deserve to win. Clinton didn't boot him till April.

10. They are mad at Hillary Clinton for conceding and not taking their fight on to Denver.

11. They are mad that everyone believes them to be old, white and racist. They are mad at the people they thought were supposed to be progressives for treating them badly.

They are mad at their party and its leaders because they feel this race has opened up a door, allowing people to rag on white women -- as irrelevant and buffoonish, as ambitious and preening, as old school and boring and nagging and hectoring -- in a way that demonstrates that women have a questionable place in liberalism and progressivism. Since when is the party supposedly interested in social justice not interested in the advancement of women to the highest office?

It was, in fact, remarkable, the success with which hoary stereotypes about second-wave feminism got so enthusiastically embraced 30 years past their sell-by date. Who knew how eager the American public -- and more critically, the American left -- was to wholeheartedly embrace the image of Hillary supporters as sexless, humorless, bitter, hysterical old crones. It was simply acceptable -- in a way that was a brisk eye-opener for a lot of young women, even those who didn't support Clinton -- to talk derisively about Clinton and her supporters as whiny, cackling, emasculating witches.

Of course, the ease with which these kinds of stereotypes were bandied about suggests that it is women -- about to take your jobs and your college acceptance letters and your seat in the Oval Office and probably your penis! -- who are the most threatening to the established white male power structure. But it seems that that was rather cold comfort when Clinton women were being steadily assailed with images of themselves as unappealing, pruney old harpies who did all their political thinking with their ovaries.

12. And finally, they are angry because they feel they are held hostage by the party by their reproductive organs.

As many people have already observed: What are they going to do, vote for John McCain? No. The truth is, they're really not. Not if they care about their freedoms to control their own reproductive lives. And they are acutely aware that party leaders know this and that, thus, despite all this anger, Democratic women remain a sure thing.

In a recent New Yorker profile of Keith Olbermann, MSNBC chief Phil Griffin described how Clinton voters felt alienated from Olbermann's anti-Clinton coverage: "He turned out to be a jerk and difficult and brutal. And that is how the Hillary viewers see him. It's true. But I do think they're going to come back. There's nowhere else to go."

Exactly. These angry people have nowhere else to go. So the safe expectation is that they will fall in line without much kicking and screaming. And that, ultimately, is why many of them are kicking and screaming. Yes, they're going to vote for Obama. Of course they'll vote for him. The truth is, they'll probably love voting for him. But after what they feel has been done to them -- the way in which they were written off, marginalized and resented, their hopes mocked and their history-making ambitions dismissed as retrograde identity politicking -- damned if they're going to be nice girls about it.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Abortion Barack Obama Democratic Party Gender Hillary Rodham Clinton