Some of the most fascinating focus groups I’ve ever conducted were of Democratic women in the 2008 Presidential primary. For the first time we were able to gauge women voters sentiment simultaneously on race and gender with both the first female and African-American candidate for President on the ballot.

White women overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton while Black women unanimously supported Barack Obama. Racial identity trumped gender identity.

This first opportunity for African-American women to choose a candidate based largely on their gender or ethnicity provided profound insight into both racial and gender decision making. And for the moment at least it was clear that racial/ethnic voting is a much stronger indicator for voting behavior than gender.
This could be significant in the upcoming US Senate race where Attorney General Kamala Harris could be squaring off with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

A female Democrat benefits from a gender gap of ten points in the Democratic Party – 55% of Democrat voters are female.

However, according to Political Data, nearly a third (29%) of those female Democrats are Latina (this number is inexact as interracial marriage rates continue to rise and a growing number of Latina voters have non-Hispanic surnames and non-Hispanic females have married Hispanic surnames).

Latinos and Latinas have shown a very strong propensity to support Hispanic candidates over non-Hispanic candidates of either gender over the past few decades. Ethnicity for Hispanic voters appears a stronger motivator than gender – a common attribute among voters of color. This is precisely what was driving African-American women to support Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton at extraordinary levels.

In other words, it’s quite possible that one-third of Democratic women may be more predisposed to vote for a candidate of their own ethnicity than one of their own gender. The ‘gender advantage’ may not be much of an advantage for Kamala Harris at all when Latina voters are presented with a male candidate of their own ethnicity (Antonio Villaraigosa) and a woman who is not (Kamala Harris).

Moreover, as significant as the advantage is, appealing to gender hasn’t always proven to be a perfect formula for Democratic female candidates. In 1998, Congresswoman Jane Harman entered the gubernatorial race late in the cycle based almost entirely on the notion that with no woman in the race, a sole female Democratic candidate would cruise to victory with women voters alone. Harman entered with Dianne Feinstein’s campaign team, her own personal wealth and the envious position of being the sole woman on the ticket looking to be Governor.

She came in third behind both Al Checci and Gray Davis.

Gender is clearly an early advantage for female candidates in Democratic primaries. It is not, however as reliable a base as an ethnic voting bloc. Women of color, when given a choice, are more likely to vote along racial or ethnic lines than for their gender.

When ethnicity isn’t a factor, women tend to fall back into a traditional gender pattern.

And if you’re wondering who Latinas supported in those focus groups back in the 2008 primary? Hillary Clinton…by a wide margin.