According to Time magazine’s latest poll, the president has retained the “seismic voter shift” he earned during the Republican convention. He continues to lead John Kerry by eleven points among likely voters. Kerry’s support has eroded in every group, and “most notably among women,” as Time points out. “In early August, females gave Kerry a sizable lead over Bush: 50 to 36 percent. Now, women favor Bush over Kerry by 45 to 44 percent. Even in Florida, Kerry’s 22 percent lead among women has been halved in the last few weeks. In the last presidential election, Gore won women’s votes 54 to 42 percent.
Why is this so important? Well, for the last 40 years more women have voted in presidential elections than men. For the last 24 years, the percentage of eligible women voters who turned out to elect the president surpassed the percentage of men. In some key states–such as Florida and Ohio–the percentage of women voters was as high as 54 percent in the 2000 election. That’s why both parties are reaching out right now to undecided women voters.
By the way, the gender gap has never been quite the chasm the media has loved to describe. Up until 1980 women tended to vote like the men in their lives. If anything, they tended to be a bit more conservative. But in 1980 Eleanor Smeal, a political scientist who became president of the National Organization for Women, noticed that while more women voted for Reagan than for Carter, a higher percentage of men voted for the Republican candidate. NOW met with the Democratic National Committee to highlight what they labeled “Reagan’s Female Problem,” and began to effectively promote to the media another new difference between men and women.
For the next two decades, the notion that men and women voted differently and that despite class, education, and income women all voted alike simply because they were women became an accepted fact, endorsed by Democratic operatives and a sympathetic press. But, of course, there were always significant differences between groups of women voters. And a far greater gender gap may be the one with which Democrats currently have to deal, because men now disproportionately vote Republican. In Time’s current poll, men favor Bush over Kerry 56 to 34 percent.
But why the apparent turnaround among women? First of all, the pro-life, pro-choice debate that was supposed to fuel much of the gender gap is practically a non-issue among most women voters today. Besides, a key demographic in this election appears to be Catholic voters. Kerry and his wife claim they are deeply conflicted about the subject of abortion. Teresa Heinz Kerry told Newsweek early in the campaign, “My belief…is that women do not want to have abortions. With the exception of people who are mindless–and there will always be mindless people of both sexes–most women wouldn’t want to.” Not exactly the sentiments Democratic campaign officials would want to promote to pro-choice women voters.
Then there’s the First Lady Factor. Laura Bush is extremely popular among women and is working hard in swing states to support her husband. As a member of her campaign team joked, noting the enthusiasm her appearances can generate, “I don’t call the new polls the Bush bounce, I call it the Laura Bush bounce.”
By contrast, Teresa Heinz Kerry–who disparages those who don’t support her husband’s health plan as “idiots” and scolds the president in her stump speeches–makes lots of women just plain uncomfortable. In a feature in Harper’s Bazaar, when asked by shoe designer and interviewer Kenneth Cole what she thought of the term “First Lady” she replied, “Ick.” “Now Laura Bush may not like the term ‘First Lady,’ either,” said a fan, “but she would never, never say, ‘Ick.’”
But what is most important is that security has now become a kitchen-table issue, an issue women think and talk and worry about every day. Many former soccer or SUV moms have become concerned security moms. One woman told me, “9/11 changed me and my family’s life. The school my children go to now has an evacuation plan. And we have lots of bottled water and batteries stored up. Potassium iodide tablets and emergency phone numbers for family members. That’s the reality of our lives today. How can anything be more important to women?”
Last week’s Russian school hostage crisis especially affected mothers who recognized the fear and panic on the faces of those helpless women and their terrified children. They could imagine and weep over the hideous Sophie’s choice some mothers had to make: to leave with an infant or stay behind in that explosive-filled school with a still-captive child.
Bush’s strong stance against terrorism is the most important reason the president’s poll numbers are moving up among women. That’s also why so many women who are Democrats remain on the fence about their candidate. Elizabeth Burnosky, a registered Democrat in Pennsylvania, says she opposes Bush’s policy on Iraq but calls John Kerry, “a little wussy boy.” She told an AP reporter, “I don’t know whether Kerry would keep us safe.”
Because of his strength with male voters, Bush does not have to win the women’s vote decisively for an impressive victory. All he needs is to turn the gender gap into a sliver. At this point in the campaign, that is what he appears to be doing.
–Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.