What Women Want

John Kerry recently was forced to face a simple, incontrovertible fact: without the women's vote, he will lose the 2004 election.

Two disappointing polls delivered the bad news last week: an Associated Press-Ipsos poll that showed Bush and Kerry running even among women; a New York Times poll giving Bush a five percentage point lead among registered female voters. So it's no wonder that the Kerry campaign has finally realized that it's time to start talking to women.

Dolores Huerta, founder of United Farm Workers of America and the national chair of the Women for Kerry campaign, is planning to meet with the Kerry campaign this week to discuss measures to address the gender gap. "We're planning to focus on women's issues, including healthcare and social security," she said. "There's still time to reach the millions of women who've been undermined by the Bush administration."

Here's the good news for the Democrats. Contrary to the media babble about "security moms," the issues most important to women voters are also John Kerry's greatest strengths, be it healthcare or the minimum wage.

While many women across the political spectrum have raised concerns about terrorism and security, a new survey released by Women's Voices, Women's Vote (WVWV) reveals that forty percent of unmarried women want to hear less about the war on terror and more about affordable healthcare, equal pay and a higher minimum wage. The 12-state survey conducted by Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research for the non-partisan organization questioned 1250 unmarried women, ages 18-64, half of whom make $35,000 a year or less.

"They think John Kerry is more interested in talking about domestic and economic issues and George W. Bush is more interested in talking about security and moral issues," says pollster Anna Greenberg. "But more importantly, sizable numbers of unmarried women simply do not know if the candidates are interested in their issues at all."

Those findings sound about right to Susan Kellenbach, a 66-year-old retired music teacher from Rockbridge, Ohio. "Terrorism isn't as important to me as other issues," she says. "Social security is important to me. Medicare is important to me. Rising gas prices are important to me. Let's talk about those issues."

Kellenbach and her family voted for Bush in 2000. On Nov. 2, she plans to switch her loyalties and vote for Kerry. Her reason: "The Republicans are lying to us seniors. A lot of us feel like we're getting shoved in a hole."

Bush's near-obsessive focus on the so-called 'war on terror' has also alienated Joan Weiss, a 58-year-old insurance agent from Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. "I support conservative causes, but Bush is not a true conservative," says the long-time Republican. "I'm voting for Kerry because he will interact with the world instead of going it alone with a tough, cowboy image." She also wants the candidates to discuss the Patriot Act and their plan to create a just and peaceful society.

Voters like Weiss and Kellenbach are not alone. While it is difficult to get at hard figures, the experience of get-out-the-vote organizations also discounts the media-driven theory about "security moms" – the idea that at least 10 percent of likely women voters in the post-9/11 era are more likely to prioritize security over bread-and-butter issues. Mainstreet Moms Oppose Bush (MMOB) claims that a vast majority of the married and unmarried women it's contacted through its grassroots efforts still want to hear more about jobs, outsourcing, school funding and healthcare. While women do fear the possibility of reinstating the draft, "terrorism rarely comes up," says Megan Matson, founder of MMOB.

The volunteer-based group has sent out personal letters and voter registration forms to 250,000 moms in swing states. "We've heard from many staunch Republicans, especially the ones who are opposed to nation building, who say they can't, in good conscience, vote for Bush. Many say they'll vote for Kerry or won't vote at all," says Matson. She says her group has been overwhelmed with responses, but has yet to hear from a Democrat who plans to vote for Bush.

The primary challenge facing groups such as MMOB and Mothers Opposing Bush (MOB) is to educate female voters about issues that both the presidential candidates and the media are ignoring. As both candidates spend most of their energy on the 'war on terror' and continue airing negative ads, domestic issues are largely being ignored. The Bush and Kerry campaign web sites provide a fair amount of information about their domestic platforms, but most voters rely on sound bites, debates and media commentary for their information on the candidates.

"If the press isn't talking about the war on terror, they're talking about polls or campaign rhetoric," says Donna Jefferson, treasurer of MOB, an 18,000 member group whose mission is to get the Bush administration out of office. "What the press isn't talking about are proposals that women would appreciate. Kerry wants middle schools to be used for after-school care and he's proposed to increase the child care tax credit to $5,000."

Jefferson says many of the moms targeted by MOB are working multiple jobs and raising more than one child on their own. "Bush policies are not helping these women and are not helping their families," she says. "I have to believe that women who are still undecided or haven't registered to vote don't know the true story."

This week, MOB will try to reach those women through targeted television ads in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. MOB is also placing ads in college newspapers in ten swing states with the slogan, "Vote As Though Your Life Depends On It."

Another campaign is focusing on 159 college campus groups in seven swing states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The goal of the Get Out Her Vote campaign is to register 20,000 new young female voters. "We are focusing on the fact that every state must allow students to register in the state where they go to school," says Crystal Lander, campus director for Get Out Her Vote. "We're also focusing on issues students care about, including reproductive rights and human rights – issues the candidates rarely address."

So why aren't we hearing from these women in the polls? For one, most pollsters only survey registered voters. New voters are rarely, if ever surveyed.

MMOB's Matson says grassroots organizations, many of which didn't exist a year ago, are having a significant impact. Most groups haven't released final numbers because they're so busy knocking on doors and making phone calls. Many also send out voter registration forms with the hope that the receiver will send it in to their local elections department.

But even without specific data on women, the number of newly registered voters is impressive. According to an analysis by The New York Times, data shows that in Democratic areas of Ohio - primarily low-income and minority neighborhoods - new registrations since January have risen 250 percent over the same period in 2000. Compare that to a 25 percent increase in Republican areas. New registrations in Democratic areas of Florida have risen 60 percent higher. The increase in Republican areas is only 12 percent.

"The numbers prove that voter outreach initiatives across the country have been wildly successful," Matson says. "You might not hear from us in the polls, but you will hear from us on Election Day."


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