RIDGEWAY & MONACO: The GOP and Women Voters

Be it Bob Dole's khaki slacks, the growing "Filegate" morass, or simply a concerted effort by the media to engineer a fight, the 1996 presidential campaign finally looks like it is revving up. The key to the election remains the old industrial Midwest, where Clinton's reception has always been tentative because of his lukewarm stance on wages and support for NAFTA. But amid the many interparty fights that are now heating up, none is more important than the ideological battle being waged to win the women's vote.While the Democrats might seem to be assured of this vote -- Clinton collected 45 per cent of the women's vote in 1992 -- the Republicans have a trick or two up their sleeves. This year, the outcome of the women's vote struggle could turn out to depend more on economics than social issues like abortion. At least that's what the Republican top strategists fervently hope will be the case.In the best-case scenario, GOP campaign strategists are betting that bread-and-butter economic issues cut deeper with the electorate -- especially women -- than the far more visible and incendiary debate around reproductive rights. "Economic insecurity is one of those just-below-the-surface issues that both parties are trying to tune in with," says Peter Snyder, senior project director of Luntz Research, a Republican polling firm.Women are key to this mix. So who are these women voters? According to EMILY's List Women's' Monitor, the typical voting woman is a white, married, middle-aged or retired, middle-class, fairly educated professional with no young children. She thinks of herself as a Democrat but is also somewhat conservative.The typical woman voter lives in suburbia or a small town, is Protestant but not fundamentalist or evangelical, and attends church weekly. She is most concerned about moral decline, crime, drugs, education, and economic issues such as retirement, social security, and jobs. Clinton fares well with this voter, despite his weak showing on issues of economic security -- identified as the most critical issue among women voters in an April survey. He does less well with Southern white women and married mothers, though he has been improving with these groups. These women identify "moral decline" as their primary concern.With the themes of this year's primaries -- unemployment, job security, the economy -- still resonating, Republicans have launched a grassroots effort to build upon the 46 per cent of the female vote they won in the 1994 midterm elections. To this end, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has developed a women's leadership seminar called "A Seat at the Table" to help women identify their leadership skills and, more importantly, to train women to go out and be messengers for the Republican Party.The Republicans have honed their attack accordingly. As far as the RNC is concerned, there are no specific women's issues. "We (Republicans) offer the same thing to women as we offer to men," says Karen Johnson, communications director for the cochairman of the committee. "We offer economic security. We offer common sense solutions. We offer a balanced budget. We offer a cut in middle-class taxes. The one thing that even the Democrats have learned this year is that there is really no line between men's and women's issues.""The conservative agenda is gender neutral," says Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. "If you look at the Contract With America, that's exactly who it was supposed to be with: America." Fitzpatrick confidently dismisses the presence of a gender gap showing President Clinton leading Dole with women voters and, in a May 17 Wall Street Journal article, laid out how the Republicans can clench the women's vote in 1996. "Republicans can appeal to women on issues by stressing that they're the party of middle-class taxpayers, the American family, and small-business owners," she wrote. "The Democrats' record on these issues is not very appealing to most women.""One of the things we're finding is that women's concerns are not significantly different from men's," adds Linda DiVall, the influential GOP pollster. "There's a lot of concern about the economy, chiefly the balanced budget, taxes, welfare. Women are a little more concerned about crime and personal security than are men, (as they are) about health care and Medicare. The significant thing for the Republican Party is the way we talk about the issues, and the way we show connections to families and women is exceedingly important and has probably been one of our shortfalls in the past year that needs to be enhanced."The conservative group Concerned Women for America commissioned its own poll on the women's vote. Not surprisingly, the findings were somewhat different from those of other polls. Crime and moral issues ranked highest among the concerns for the women it polled, and on issues of abortion, family values, and welfare, 53 per cent of the women said they held conservative sentiments. The CWA poll also found that eight out of every 10 women, if given the choice and economic means, would rather stay home to be full-time mothers than go to work. "Clearly, most women now work mainly out of economic necessity, not career ambition," the CWA deduced.Despite Republican slash-and-burn tactics on many policies affecting women, be it education, family planning, or domestic violence, conservative women appear to have no qualms about toeing the GOP line come November. According to Fitzpatrick, the conservative agenda is a women's agenda. These are her views on welfare reform: "There are women right above the poverty level but lower than middle-class who absolutely resent the welfare system because they believe it sucks up their tax dollars and goes to people who don't do what they do...go to work." She adds, "The only thing that they (women) know about affirmative action is that in their minds it has cost their brother, father, son, boyfriend, or husband a promotion."When it comes to devising a strategy aimed at winning the women's vote, DiVall wouldn't talk of specific GOP "target groups," except to say they would be white. She did say, however, that the party was "looking at married women...independent women, women who are working and earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year." These, she says, "are all significant blocks of voters that show a large appeal to Republicans."While the RNC may at least have the outlines of a strategy, the Dole campaign seems to be going nowhere on the subject. "I think they're still formulating it," says Karen Miller of the Heritage Foundation. "Right now, Republicans aren't doing well with women, and it's because they haven't communicated their message." As another influential Republican campaign adviser who asked not to be identified put it, "Right now Republicans are in the toilet with women across the board."Ann Stone is chair of Republicans for Choice, a group that is trying to get Dole and the party to drop their pledge to seek a constitutional amendment banning abortion and, in the process, carve out some space for pro-choice women to be drawn into the party on economic and other planks. "The boys are not quite there yet," Stone says sarcastically of the Dole campaign leadership. "They're so cute. I know a lot of people get really mad at them. They think there is this huge conspiracy, and they hate women. And it isn't that at all. They're so naive and they are so out of it, but it isn't even intentional. They just don't understand. Dealing with some of the people is like going back in a time warp. Some of them you just want to slap upside the head."There are signs that the Republican overview of women voters may be right. An April EMILY's List poll designed by Democratic pollsters Celinda Lake and Stan Greenberg found that the most critical issue among women voters is the economy and economic security. There was only a 1 per cent margin in the confidence women voters expressed in the Democrats running the economy rather than the Republicans. But on questions of economic security, the Republicans led the Democrats by a more sizable six percentage points.One thing that ought to augur well for the Republicans is the lack of a coherent Democratic drive for the women's vote. Up until now, the party's women in Congress have been too tied up fending off right-wing assaults on abortion, affirmative action, education, welfare, and health care to mold a female-oriented economic approach.Nevertheless, while Democratic women in Congress also identify the importance of economic security to the upcoming election, they dismiss the Republican leadership as being completely out of touch with women. "I think the Republican leadership just doesn't get it," says Congresswoman Nita Lowey. "Republicans want to take women back to the 19th century instead of moving forward." "They (right-wing Republicans) are outrageous for women," says retiring Colorado Democratic representative Pat Schroeder. "Their idea of how women participate is maybe to let them be cheerleaders....They decide what the calls should be. After they make the call, they'll let you go out, if you're cute enough."As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sees it, the Democrats have little reason to be concerned. "Suburban, professional, college-educated, independent women are heavily for the president, although they are fairly Republican-leaning on fiscal issues," he says. "The president is also doing well with homemakers, married women with children, and Southern women -- women who are concerned with values. Many Republicans are very worried....Bob Dole is concerned and trying to reach suburban women. He is pushing welfare and taxes to appeal to married women with kids, but it is too problematic. He hasn't articulated a values message."

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