Pocketbook Issue

A Pay Case That Obama Needs to Woo Women

Lilly Ledbetter, whose equal-pay suit was overturned last year, greets Sen. Barack Obama before his vote on a bill to make it easier to sue in such cases.
Lilly Ledbetter, whose equal-pay suit was overturned last year, greets Sen. Barack Obama before his vote on a bill to make it easier to sue in such cases. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, August 20, 2008; Page A15

By the time Election Day arrives, you might be forgiven for thinking that Barack Obama's running mate is named Lilly Ledbetter.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but, really, the Obama campaign wouldn't mind. Ledbetter was on the losing end of a Supreme Court case last year on equal pay. A manager at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, she consistently received smaller raises than her male counterparts. The Supreme Court threw out her suit because, the five-justice majority said, she waited too long to complain, even though she didn't know about the pay difference earlier.

Now, a bill to fix this equal pay Catch-22 is pending in Congress -- and the Ledbetter case has emerged as a key piece of Obama's effort to woo women. In particular, working women, less-educated women, older women. Women who voted for a certain woman and haven't come around to the guy who defeated her.

It's not that Obama has a problem with female voters. To the contrary, he does significantly better among women than among men. It sounds paradoxical, but the campaign, lagging badly among white men, may have its biggest growth potential among female voters. Women, especially women without a college education, tend to make up their minds later. Recent polls show twice as many women as men are undecided.

Women also account for more than half the electorate: 54 percent of voters in 2004, 52 percent in 2000. Al Gore won among female voters by 11 points. Four years later, with security moms defecting to George W. Bush, John Kerry had just a three-point margin among women. In short, Obama's ability to equal or exceed Gore's vote among women could determine the outcome.

So far, that's looking doable. In a survey released last week, the Pew Research Center found that women favored Obama over John McCain by 51 percent to 38 percent, a dramatic improvement from his 47-to-42 advantage in May. Men, by contrast, backed McCain by 49 percent to 41 percent in the recent survey.

Looking exclusively at white voters, McCain led Obama among men by 55 percent to 35 percent, among women by only 46 percent to 43 percent. "Barack Obama has a good lead with women and an even greater potential to increase that lead," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who conducted a recent poll for the Lifetime television network with Republican Kellyanne Conway. The poll showed Obama with a 12-point advantage among independent women, more than Gore or Kerry received.

At the same time, Obama faces an enthusiasm gap among older women. Exactly how much depends on which poll -- Pew had his advantage at just four points among senior women, while a survey to be released today by Emily's List showed Obama enjoying an 11-point advantage among that group, better than his six-point margin among female baby boomers. Yet the Emily's List survey also found older women far more inclined toward congressional Democrats, with a 27-point advantage.

"Where he has shown the most room to grow is among these senior women," said Maren Hesla of Emily's List. To slice the demographics even more, a new analysis from Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm, found that Obama "is not living up to his full potential with white older unmarried women."

Hence, the appeal of Ledbetter as a campaign issue. For all the fuss over a roll-call vote for Hillary Clinton at the convention, worrying about such logistics was to some extent a luxury indulged in by women who don't have to worry about how to afford the next tank of gas. Ledbetter, by contrast, puts a human face on a pocketbook issue. "This is an issue that really demonstrates you're in touch with women's lives," Lake said.

Obama was an original co-sponsor of the legislation to reverse the result in Ledbetter's case; McCain opposes the bill because, he said in April, it "opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems." Well, yes, that would be the point of a law prohibiting pay discrimination.

The Obama campaign has asked Clinton to talk about Ledbetter when she campaigns for him. Obama, who didn't focus much on the issue during the primary campaign, hosted a meeting Monday on pay equity; the campaign released a memo contrasting Obama and McCain on women's issues. As I sat down to write this column, an e-mail arrived from the Democratic convention announcing that Ledbetter would be speaking there. Which probably puts her off the veep list, but you never know.


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