What Women Voters Want in 2008

Election '08
(The full text of this article appears in the Spring issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com.)

Beyond the preference for one candidate or another, what issues most concern women in this historic election year? How do women's concerns diverge from men's? And how are women -- who make up about 54 percent of the electorate in presidential years -- shaping the campaigns?

Recent public opinion research by our firm, Lake Research Partners, and others help shed some light on what women want, and what candidates will have to address to win their vote. Here are some things we have learned:

I. Women are fed up with the status quo.

Three-quarters of all women say the country is on the wrong track, compared to 67 percent of men. Those percentages are even higher among unmarried women (77 percent) and African American women (80 percent). These numbers suggest that a narrative promising change may energize such voters in the upcoming election. Women are also more likely to dislike President Bush (57 percent, compared to 51 percent of men) and disapprove of the job he is doing (62 percent of women, 55 percent of men), which suggests that most voters, regardless of their partisan preferences, are looking for a candidate who will take the country in a different direction.

II. Women and men agree that the economy is the No. 1 concern -- but women are especially concerned.

Women express their anxiety about the economy even more strongly than do men: Nearly 80 percent of women describe the current economic situation as either "fair" or "poor," compared to 68 percent of men.

Heightened anxiety about the direction of the country, and the economy in particular, lead to a sense among women -- even more so than among men -- that the American Dream is becoming increasingly difficult to attain. Women are much less optimistic about their children's future than are men: 44 percent of men say they think their children will be better off than their parents, while only 35 percent of women feel that way.

III. Rising health-care costs particularly concern women. While both women and men name rising health-care costs as their top economic concern, women feel it with greater intensity (27 percent, vs. 22 percent of men). Men, on the other hand, are twice as likely to worry about higher taxes than women, ranking it their second-highest concern as compared to fifth-highest for women.

IV. Women are concerned with national security, but favor a cooperative international approach.

Women do not think actions by the U.S. government have made us safer since 9/11; more than half of women voters report feeling less safe when thinking about terrorism and national security than they did in 2002. Only one in four women approves of Bush's handling of the so-called war on terror. Therefore, any candidate who argues that Bush's policies have made us safer may have trouble winning the majority of women's votes.

Two-thirds of women are in favor of cooperating with other countries as often as possible, even if that means the U.S. has to compromise on occasion. Women tend to believe that America should act alone only as a last resort.

Although women rank the threat of terrorism with other top-tier concerns, they don't let it solely guide their interests or votes. As one woman put it, "I go to the grocery store and I am not concerned about the threat of terrorism, but I am concerned with the high price of milk."

V. The gender gap is still critical.

Since 1980, women have consistently tended to vote more Democratic than men in presidential elections, with a Democratic-favoring gender gap of at least 13 points. (The only exception occurred in 1992, when Bill Clinton won the men's vote by 3 percentage points as well as the women's, by 8, for a gender gap of just 5 points.) The trend peaked in 2000, when women voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush by 11 percentage points, while men voted for Bush over Gore by 11 -- creating an overall gender gap of 22 percentage points.

Still, historical trends alone will not win the women's vote. Candidates will have to address domestic and international concerns in a compelling way, confront the pervasive worry that the country is on the wrong track, and provide a nuanced agenda aimed at getting the country back on the right course.

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