The women of the 2012 US presidential election

Sarah Palin may grab more headlines, but is there room for Michele Bachmann in the Republican primar

Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican nominee for Vice president, is a Tea Party conservative, Evangelical Christian, mother to five children and possible nominee for the Republican 2012 presidential candidate. Michele Bachmann, US representative from Minnesota, is also a Tea Party conservative, Evangelical Christian, mother to five children and possible nominee for the Republican 2012 presidential candidate. Each was the first woman to hold office in her state, and neither is afraid to push for other breakthroughs in the political world, no matter how controversial.

Sarah Palin was thrust into the spotlight following her VP nomination in 2008 and has since been one of the media's favourite topics, with a 95 per cent recognisability, according to the latest Gallup poll on the 2012 election. Michele Bachmann doesn't have the same name recognition, with only 60 per cent in the same poll - but perhaps this isn't necessarily a bad thing given the type of coverage Palin usually receives.

Gallup puts Palin's ballot support at 15, while Bachmann's is only at 5. However, the positive intensity scores, which reflect favourable public opinion, are at 14 for Palin and 21 for Bachmann.

But how will female voters respond to each of these women?

One thing is certain: female voters will be one of the biggest factors in the 2012 election.

In 2008, while male votes were split relatively evenly between Obama and McCain, women voted 56 per cent Democrat and 43 per cent Republican, sealing Obama's decisive victory. Female turnout was also higher than male figures, with 65.7 per cent of women and only 61.5 per cent of males voting, according to a Pew Research Centre poll.

With the 2012 election approaching, it seems the change women want may no longer be Obama. Surveys of the 2010 midterm elections revealed 49 per cent of female voters chose Republican congressional candidates compared to the 48 per cent who preferred Democrats. This is the first time in 30 years that Republican candidates received a majority of women's votes, according to the Washington Times.

"The explanation for that is really economic," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, new chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee told the Washington Post. "Women make so many of the economic decisions in households. And so the struggle economically is really borne by women."

Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis, Wyoming Republican, believes female voters take a longer-range view than men when they cast their vote.

"The candidate who will succeed with women in 2012 will be the candidate who appeals to the future of our country and economic stability," Lummis said. "It has less to do with political party than with the vision they paint."

If women no longer agree with Obama's plans for the future, they might be willing to take a look at the visions painted by other women.

According to a recent Pew Research Centre poll, 77 per cent of the general public says that it would not matter to them if the candidate was a woman, with 18 per cent of women more likely to support a women compared to the 10 per cent of men who said the same. This is a striking change in the attitude of women compared to feelings during Clinton's run in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway told the Washington Post that many conservatives try to avoid identity politics based on sex and gender, and republican women haven't been prone to voting for women over men. However, she believes most of today's voters are beginning to gravitate towards candidates they can relate to on a personal level.

Matt Towery, Advantage Insider pollster and president, told Newsmax that current poll numbers for Palin or Bachmann must factor in women.

"As women voters get to know a woman candidate, the voters tend to migrate towards that candidate," Towery said. "The percentage of women voters leaning towards a woman candidate increases as you get deeper into the primaries."

If this probable female support becomes a reality, the choice between the strikingly similar women remains.

Some feel the comparison between the two women is unfair to Bachmann and borders sexism, according to a Washington Post female blogger. They don't believe Bachmann deserves to fall into the same stereotype that Palin has become subject to. They feel Bachman, an experienced lawyer and current office holder, is a more qualified candidate than the over-publicized Palin.

Still, most polls have Palin ahead of Bachmann. Real Clear Politics' most recent poll ranks Palin at 12.1 and Bachmann at 5.2.

Bachmann, however, seems closer to officially declaring her candidacy, and once the general public becomes more aware of her presence in this race, the polls could change. As Bachmann makes a name for herself outside of the Tea Party, Palin could lose some of her lustre.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.