The Security Mom Myth

Election '04
Editor's Note: This report comes from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a public opinion and strategic research company.

In the past weeks, we have seen numerous articles and commentaries discussing John Kerry's problem with women. As the argument goes, Kerry is losing women and that this erosion is rooted in their deep-seeded concerns about security. Women simply trust George Bush more than Kerry to keep them safe and they drop off from Kerry as they are less confident he can handle the war on terrorism and homeland security. The fabled "security moms" lead this charge, as they worry about the safety of their children especially after being exposed to the images of terrorism in Russia and rising terrorist attacks around the world. These "key" women voters, it is said, want to hear more about security from Democrats and Kerry.

There are a number of problems with these arguments and they profoundly misrepresent who women are and what they worry about politically. Let me take each assertion in turn:

1. Kerry is losing women voters. The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows Kerry trailing Bush by 5 points, 43 to 48 percent among women. This result was a lead story on NPR and the front page of the New York Times, but most other national polls shows Kerry winning among women. In our Democracy Corps polls, conducted every week in September, Kerry leads by an average of 7 points among women, 52 to 45 percent and loses among men by an average of 10 points, 43 to 53 percent. It is true that Kerry is currently underperforming among women. For example, in the most recent Democracy Corps poll, women identify with the Democrats by 9 points, but Kerry is only winning them by 6 points in a two-way race with Bush and by 4 points in a three-way contest including Nader. But underperforming is not the same as losing women and, as I will explain below, this underperformance is not necessarily rooted in security issues.

2. Women are security moms. Sixty-four percent of women voters are married, but only 43 percent have children under 18 years of age. This means that only 26 percent of all women voters could be characterized as "security moms." If we narrow the analysis to white women, this number goes down to 22 percent of all women voters. Women are diverse and trying to characterize them as a monolithic group with a unified set of political views misses the mark. As we know, there are huge differences among women voters, just look at the marriage gap between married and unmarried women. Kerry currently wins unmarried women by 22 points and loses married women by 4 points.

3. Women are more worried about security than men. Women tend to be more worried about their personal and economic security than men, which is not surprising because they are more likely to be victims of crime at home and they are more likely to live on the economic margins. But this concern about personal security does not necessarily translate into political preferences. In fact, men are much more likely to make the war on terrorism and security a part of their voting calculus.

When we asked people why they would vote for Bush, the war on terrorism was the second most important reason for men (30 percent) and the third most important reason for women (24 percent). In fact, even among white married women, the war on terrorism (24 percent) trailed behind a strong leader who does what he says (33 percent) and his faith and values (29 percent). When we asked women what they would like to see more of from Kerry, "a strong enough backbone to deal with terrorist threats" trailed plans for the economy and healthcare, plans for Iraq, honesty and convictions and standing up to corporate interest for women, while it ranked second for men.

4. Women give Bush better ratings on security than Kerry. Duh! Since 9/11, Bush has garnered strong ratings on security from everybody. When measured before we had a Democratic candidate, women gave Bush better scores than a generic Democrat and they continue to give Bush better scores than Kerry. It is important to note, however, that men give Bush stronger ratings on all matters of security than women: they prefer Bush on the war on terrorism to Kerry by 26 points while women only prefer Bush by 9 points; they prefer Bush on foreign policy by 9 points, while women are evenly divided between the candidates; and they prefer Bush on being respected in the world by 10 points while women prefer Kerry by 13 points.

Women are more skeptical, moreover, about the situation in Iraq than men and women (55 percent) are more likely than men (47 percent) to say that the war in Iraq has made us less secure.

The truth is, Kerry is struggling with some women and he has struggled with them from the very beginning of this campaign. White blue collar women and white married women are conservative, lean Republican and they have supported Bush since the beginning of the year. To suggest huge movement among women is wrong and to the degree that Kerry struggles, it is mostly with conservative women. There is no doubt that Kerry must perform better with women voters, but clearly the way to accomplish this will involve far more than just reassuring women about security; it will involve understanding what women really care about politically and an agenda that no doubt addresses their concerns about healthcare costs, retirement security, and income inequality.

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