By Cindy Richards
Wednesday, May 24, 2000
Recent poll that permits voters to either declare a preference or say that they have not yet made up their minds indicates that women are currently underwhelmed by the presidential candidates.
Women hold the keys to the White House. And, despite the best efforts of both parties, female voters don't yet care who wins come November.
Women are the largest single voting block in America and more than two-thirds of them are apparently so disenchanted by the political process, so uninterested in the two major party candidates, or so busy with their lives that they have yet to decide whom to support for president.
That's the likely explanation for the results of the poll of women by Harvard University's aptly named Vanishing Voter Project. "No candidate yet" emerged as the clear favorite among women, with a whopping 68 percent of women voters.
Of those few who had chosen a candidate, Bush was in the lead with 18 percent, and Democrat Al Gore was at 14 percent. Among all voters, 59 percent hadn't selected a candidate, 23 percent chose Bush and 17 percent picked Gore. The poll was conducted between April 18 and 22.
The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which is conducting the weekly polls, hasn't yet broken down support by race.
It doesn't have to, according to David Bositis, senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on public policy issues of special concern to black Americans and other minorities. He already knows that the overwhelming majority of Hispanics and blacks are firmly aligned with the Democratic Party.
The Democrats and Republicans know it, too. But that hasn't stopped Bush from attempting to move his party beyond its whites-only image.
He won't fool many blacks or Hispanics, Bositis said. But that isn't his goal. Bush's efforts are aimed squarely at the middle-class, white suburban soccer moms.
"All things being equal, these women aren't going to vote for somebody who they think is a racist," said Bositis, who has spent 28 years analyzing minority political participation. But, he added, they "can be influenced. It's a strategy he's counting on to make big gains among white women. If he doesn't, he can't win."
Should Bush win the women's vote this year, it would reverse a voting gender gap that has grown to a gulf over the last two decades.
Since the 1980 race that pit Republican Ronald Reagan against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, researchers have noted that women were far more likely than men to vote Democratic. In the 1988 presidential race, women split their votes evenly, with 50 percent voting for Bush's father, George, and 49 percent supporting Democrat Michael Dukakis. In 1992, 45 percent of women voters supported Democrat Bill Clinton vs. 37 percent for incumbent Bush. By the time Clinton was re-elected in 1996, the gender gap was a mile wide, with 54 percent of women supporting Clinton and only 38 percent supporting Republican Bob Dole, although it was the overwhelming support among black women that took Clinton over the top.
For the most part, election experts say, it's too early to make real predictions about who will be voting for whom. Political awareness among the electorate mirrors the news--it rises and falls with coverage of the campaigns.
The campaign hasn't dominated the news since Bush and Gore clinched their respective nominations, which means it has been out of the minds of voters as well. Indeed, interest in the election has fallen sharply since the big March primary day known as Super Tuesday. At that time, 49 percent of voters said they hadn't yet chosen a candidate, according to a Shorenstein poll.
The Shorenstein results differ markedly from the findings of most other polls, which show voters strongly supporting either Bush or Gore. That's because of the way Shorenstein asks the question, said Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and executive director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office. Rather than ask, as most polls do, whether the voter is supporting Bush or Gore, Shorenstein asks: "Which presidential candidate do you support at this time or haven't you picked a candidate yet?"
"The wording of the pollster's questions is often the key to the public's answers," Kalb said. "Name the candidate and you get one response; don't name him and you get another, perhaps far more revealing, response.