Bush and the Women’s Vote

Recent polling results showing President Bush nearly even with–or even ahead of–Senator Kerry among women voters, overcoming a gender gap that has prevailed since at least the 1980 election, has generated quite a bit of analysis from the commentariat. Two interesting pieces on the subject appear in today’s papers.

Margaret Carlson, writing in the LAT, seeks to explain “Why Bush Looks Good to Women.” Despite a rather sneering tone, she hits on a plausible answer:

The reason may be as simple as Bush himself: Post-9/11 pollsters say women prefer certitude and clarity to nuance and verbosity, staying alive to after-school programs. Democrats wail at the loss of their usual edge with women, at the irony of the National Guard slacker beating the Silver Star warrior on the issue of strength. But bluster and repetition have apparently prevailed, especially when John Kerry has said both so much and so little. Hard to read, Kerry has let Bush and his evil genius, Karl Rove — the architect of his political life — fill in the blanks.

I don’t buy Bush’s strength, but in a campaign it doesn’t matter what is real and what is fake; it’s what will fly. Tonight, Kerry has a chance to press his case with women, notoriously late deciders with a long attention span and good impulse control. Though errant female voters are gettable for Kerry, it won’t be easy. There are some troublesome biographical points. Marrying one woman vastly wealthier than you are looks like good fortune in matters of the heart. Marrying a second one looks like a calculated career move. Kerry’s hooded eyes make him look like a brooder, but not the strong, silent type. At a totally superficial level, that orange tan is troublesome. Across the political spectrum, women do not trust a primper.

For women, says pollster Frank Luntz, consistency and having someone they can count on are essential. “It is better to be wrong,” says Luntz, “than to lack constancy.” Bush has had a field day exploiting Kerry’s wavering. “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” has become a Republican laugh line. That vote found its way into an ad after Kerry did the GOP the favor of going windsurfing off Nantucket during the Republican convention, just about the time Arnold Schwarzenegger was deriding girlie men in his Bush-approved convention speech. The result was one of the campaign’s most successful ads — the loner in his too-perfect outfit enjoying an elite sport with the voice-over “John Kerry: Whichever way the wind blows.”

Of course, what Carlson’s argument boils down to is that women like the same things in Bush that men do. Despite a flaccid economy and a messy situation in Iraq, Bush conveys a sense of decisiveness that Kerry does not.

Collin Levey’s piece in the Seattle Times, entitled “Old Democrat pick-up lines aren’t working on women,” makes that argument more explicitly:

Kerry has been going “Live with Regis and Kelly” and heading to a Redbook luncheon (cookie recipe forthcoming?). And Democrats like former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry have predicted that Kerry will aim for some nice soft tones in tonight’s debate, since women don’t like to see bullies like Al Gore wandering and huffing about. Such courtship rituals are for the benefit of the potential Bush voters who’ve been dubbed “security moms,” much to the annoyance of certain feminist leaders. But at least this election has treated women as capable of being engaged by the great issues, rather than as just another narrow special interest, like, say, ethanol promoters.


. . . . And in case they didn’t get the message to drop all that Iraq/terrorism/globalization stuff and get back to the feminist knitting, Ramona Oliver of EMILY’s List insists the Bush campaign is just making “a concerted effort to scare women into maintaining the status quo.” That’s hard to square with the notion, presumably upheld by these same groups, that women are smart, rational political creatures, capable of looking beyond “gender” concerns to the larger issues of war and peace. In fact, it’s those groups that have traditionally tried to scare women with claims that America is one Supreme Court appointment away from back-alley abortions and pink-collar oppression in the workplace.

But attempts to corral women into political lockstep in the name of their common womanhood have always flown in the face of actual voting history. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter for the women’s vote 45 percent to 44 percent. Next time out, he got 56 percent of the female vote despite the presence of a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, on the Democratic ticket. Back in the Mesozoic, in fact, women were considered more likely to vote Republican — they went narrowly for Richard Nixon (hardly a sensitive, New Age man) against John Kennedy in 1960.


On the big issues (security, economy), women turn out not to be so different from men. You’d think women’s groups would be proud of the fact that women are wrestling with these matters and coming to their own, independent judgments. Why should nongender-related topics adhere to a “gender gap” anyway? But, of course, that ends up leaving the women’s groups (nearly all of them aligned with the Democratic Party) feeling kind of useless, doesn’t it?

Indeed. As Levey notes, it has never been the case that women have voted as a group. The “gender gap” has been a tendency to vote Democrat at a greater rate than men. Unlike blacks, who continue to vote as a block despite amazing diversity, women as a whole tend not to perceive themselves as an interest group. For a variety of reasons, women have tended to be more predisposed to social redistribution programs and less so to national security spending than men. This year, it looks as if national security is being viewed as a “family” issue.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Public Opinion Polls, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    What the women voters… and a goodly chunk of the men voters as well… didn’t like about Gore… was not his huffing and puffing… but his incoherrency while doing it. He had an attitude, and that certainly was showwn at the debates…but that attitude was about all he had that was consistant, and he lost because of both the attitude and his lack of anything else. He got serious negatives after that debate because of his tactics there.

    Still, he might have even gotten by with those tactics, had the Florida voters actually been able to manipulate a ballot. But several things have changed the voter’s perception on what such people can get by with…. The numoerous reports of voter fraud on the part of the Democrats…. and 9/11.

    Which to turn to current events is exactly why Kerry’s not doing so well right now… particularly 9/11.

    Try it this way…Does anyone see a whole bunch of difference between Gore then, and Kerry now? I certainly don’t. And there, then is the key… 9/11 has changed the perception of each political argument among the voters. Sins that could be forgiven more easily in gentler times, can no longer be overlooked.