Dianne Bystrom

(WOMENSENEWS)–When the polls open at 6:30 p.m. in Iowa today for the first Democratic caucuses for 2004, the consensus among close observers–academics, and Iowa political leaders–is that there will be more women attending than men. Who these women will be voting for, however, is more of a guessing game.

During U.S. presidential election years since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have kicked off the primary season. The results and the atmosphereoften set the stage for the remainder of the presidential campaigns.

In 1976, first-time candidate Jimmy Carter won in Iowa from a position of relative obscurity and continued on to the White House. Tonight’s caucuses will determine whether some candidates will continue running and is the first binding result in this year’s national election.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are the top candidates in the state’s caucuses on Monday, according to the most recent polls. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio are also running, but not seen as serious contenders. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Gen. Wesley K. Clark are not competing in Iowa, but say that they will run in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27.

More Women Voting

One thing that’s for sure is that there will be more women voting tonight. The predicted female turnout has to do with the population realities in Iowa. Reflecting the nation’s population as a whole, there are slightly more women in Iowa in general with females representing 50.9 percent of the state’s population, according to a 2002 U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

But the real key to women’s role tonight is the higher number of older female voters. Usually, older citizens are more likely to vote. About 19 percent of Iowa’s population is over the age of 60, and 57.8 percent of those voters are women, according to the last U.S. Census in 2000. In real numbers, that means there are close to 90,000 more older women than men. All this is expected to be a factor in who Iowans will vote for today and how a gender gap will affect the vote.

No Clear Front-Runner for Female Vote

However, most analysts say they don’t anticipate a large gender gap in tonight’s vote.

“A gender gap is not a big factor in Democratic Party politics,” says Dianne Bystrom, a director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames. “Women and men Democratic voters are much more alike politically than Republican voters.”

If there is a gender gap, says David Redlawsk, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University, it is subtle. “What I’m seeing is that there’s no clear ‘more women are going this way, more men are going that way’ trend.” Redlawsk, also acting chair for the Johnson County Democratic Party, adds, “There is not a real obvious thing.”

Analysts say, however, they are still monitoring the women’s vote as an indication of what may happen in the presidential election. Tonight’s caucuses are expected to be intense and volatile; there are more candidates running than usual and their campaigns are strikingly similar.

All the Democratic candidates are pro-choice and have similar platforms on women’s issues, but overall front-runner Howard Dean seems to be leading the pack. The former governor of Vermont has a strong record of supporting women’s issues such as fighting against domestic violence and pro-choice issues. Analysts say there is also a general admiration among female voters for Dean’s reputation as a straight-talker.

Kerry and Edwards are also seen as strong candidates for the female vote. Gephardt, a front-runner with Dean in the race overall, is seen as less of a contender, perhaps because he once advocated an anti-choice agenda. He says he abandoned his opposition to abortion in 1986 because of “wisdom gained over time.”

Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 with 31 percent of the vote, but dropped out of the race shortly thereafter. Kucinich, seen as not having much of chance to lead his party this year, also switched to pro-choice in 2003.

War a Key Issue

One of the biggest factors likely to have an impact on tonight’s outcome, analysts say, is the candidates’ positions on the Iraq war.

Bystrom says that peace is historically an Iowan prerogative. In recent polls seven out of ten Democratic voters have reported being unhappy with the way Iraq was and is still being handled.

Political researchers in Iowa say that Dean’s strong anti-war stance will draw female voters in the same way Dean has been able to energize young citizens to join his camp.

“Peace is an Iowan issue and a women’s issue,” Bystrom told Women’s eNews.

Bonnie Campbell, former Attorney General of Iowa and former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, agrees.

“I really do think that women disproportionately will support Governor Dean for a number of reasons,” Campbell told Women’s eNews. “Women tend to feel very strongly that this war was a mistake and that we weren’t told the truth about why we were going in. Dean is one of the only top-tier candidates who rallied against the war.”

Endorsements from Female Leaders

Many researchers say that they’ve noticed little campaigning targeted specifically towards the women’s vote in Iowa, but all of the candidates have messages on their Web sites saying they are deeply invested in issues pertaining to women, such as universal healthcare, the pay gap and reproductive rights. Kerry and Dean have strong “Women For . . . ” contingencies that have held recent benefits for their candidates.

Carol Moseley-Braun, the only female candidate for the Democratic ticket, announced Thursday that she will withdraw from race but endorse Dean, another potential influence in Dean’s popularity among women.

“I do think the timing of Moseley-Braun’s endorsement–so close to the day of the polling–is going to give Dean a boost,” Bystrom says.

Dean has other endorsements of female political and labor leaders, including Ida L. Castro, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s first Latina chair; Patricia A. Ford, the international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and one of the highest ranked African American women in the North American labor movement and LaDonna Harris, a Native American of Comanche origin and the president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, based in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.

Bystrom says that Dean may have reached out to key female political leaders as a way of making up for the fact that his wife, a family physician, is not significantly involved in his campaign. Wives of presidential candidates usually stretch their husbands’ time and money and are often utilized to address key constituencies like women, she says.

“It’s very important for the Dean campaign because he does not have a spouse campaigning for him–these women are acting as a surrogate,” Bystrom says.

Christy Gephardt, Gephardt’s lesbian daughter, has been campaigning on campuses around Iowa for her father.

Popular folk singer Ani DiFranco has endorsed Kerry, who also recently gained the endorsement of Iowa’s first lady, Christie Vilsack.

Bystrom says that though there may be a small gender gap in tonight’s poll, the women’s vote is essential if a Democrat is to defeat George Bush for the presidency.

“The best advice anyone can give to a Democratic candidate is to exploit the gender gap as much as possible,” Bystrom says.

Emma Pearse, an intern at Women’s eNews, is a free-lance writer in New York who often writes about women and popular culture.

For more information:

Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University: