Twenty-five years after the gender gap first appeared as a factor in American politics, it's worth reflecting on whether as some in the GOP said after last November's election the gap has shrunk to the vanishing point.
Let's be clear: The gender gap didn't disappear in 2004, but it diminished significantly. John Kerry narrowly won the women's vote last year when he defeated Bush by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent. Contrast this to the 2000 presidential election, in which Al Gore ended up with an 11-point margin over Bush among women voters.
Which begs the question: Is the gender gap a thing of the past? The short answer is a resounding "no."
Two recent polls show that women voters are, if anything, turning away from the GOP -- and that the Democrats have an opportunity to expand the gender gap and win back those women voters and more in the 2006 mid-term elections and beyond.
The first poll, a Democratic survey that was done by Lake Snell Perry Mermin & Associates Inc. this spring, revealed, as reported in the Washington Post, that "the public's agenda has shifted from homeland security and terrorism to domestic concerns such as jobs and the economy." In 2004, Bush used fear to score points with voters. But, while Karl Rove and Bush are still stoking the fears that Democrats can't be trusted to prevent terrorism, their message is no longer resonating in quite the same way. The London bombings may bring about a short-term shift in women's attitudes, but strong signs suggest that doubts about Bush's security policies are growing.
"Women, if left to their own devices, are going to tend and trend Democratic," the GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway explained to the Washington Post's Brian Faler. "...Women are still congenitally Democratic, and I'm the Republican pollster saying that."
The second survey, "Women at the Center of Political Change," was conducted in May by EMILY's List Women's Monitor. As one of the most comprehensive post-election looks at the attitudes and motivations of female voters, the poll showed that in the past six months alone the GOP has lost a lot of ground with women voters.
Fifty-five percent of women said they believed that the country was heading in the wrong direction -- and they held the GOP responsible as the party in power. And just as the Lake poll discovered, women cited as their chief concerns domestic priorities like Social Security and health care.
Republicans have done a lot of overreaching in recent months -- from the Terri Schiavo case to fierce talk about gutting reproductive rights and cutting Social Security benefits. And perhaps the key insight that the survey offers is that women voters "overwhelmingly uphold the value of privacy for individuals and families, while rejecting government intrusion on issues involving religion and morality."
Sixty-two percent of women said that "questions of religion and morality should be left up to the individual, and it should not be the role of government to impose any particular religious or moral point of view on the country." And, the survey reveals, "women voters believe that the government has gone too far in dictating personal morality and even those whose own values are conservative are discomforted."
Women have moved away from the Republican Party because they believe that the GOP has overstepped the bounds on the relationship between religion and science. Even women who are uncomfortable with abortion rights feel strongly that the government shouldn't dictate morality and that scientific progress shouldn't be proscribed by religion. Most women believe in science and want the US to remain a leader in technology and innovation. (Think stem cell research.) That explains, then, another one of the survey's findings -- one-third of women who voted for Bush in 2004 won't vote Republican in 2006.
"The Republican drop-off encompasses virtually every demographic subgroup of women," EMILY's List reported, including "key segments of the women's electorate for 2006 and beyond" from social conservatives to non-college educated whites to Catholics. Women voters are dissatisfied with the status quo and want elected leaders to spend more of their time tackling domestic problems.
But if the political terrain is shifting away from the GOP the Democrats have yet to close the deal. The Democratic challenge is to create an agenda that both addresses women's economic concerns and "respects families and care giving to take full advantage of the opportunity that they have been granted."
As the Women's Monitor survey argues, women want politicians who will demonstrate personal accountability, care about people in need and provide equality of opportunity. According to the poll, Democrats also need to understand that women consider themselves "the arbiter of family values" and the "central caregivers" in their families, not the government.
The next few months could be crucial. The divisions in our electorate are going to come to a head in the fight to confirm a judge to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. The rightwing of the Republican Party will seek its reward for what it did in 2004, and Bush and the embattled Rove could pander to their base by sending up a Scalia clone. The GOP has already alienated many women, but if Bush nominates a right-wing judge to replace O'Connor -- one who fails to respect religious differences, families' privacy and ordinary Americans' economic problems -- he could find himself in even bigger trouble with women voters. He might feel the consequences in the 2006 mid-term elections and his party could take a big hit in 2008.
By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Reprinted with permission from The Nation