Kate Michelman

Washington, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–A group of prominent liberal political leaders held a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court on its opening day Monday to warn women that their right to have an abortion hangs in the balance in this year’s presidential election.

“Today, we the people are here to say ‘no’ to George W. Bush appointing right-wing judges who will strip us of our rights and liberties,” Kate Michelman cried before an audience carrying signs in support of Democratic
presidential nominee John Kerry.

The former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a Washington, D.C.-based group that lobbies for reproductive rights, Michelman now chairs the Democratic National Committee’s Campaign to Save the Court and is working to elect John Kerry to the White House.

On the same day, President Bush launched a new television advertisement dubbed “Thinking Mom,” in which a mother complains about the high cost of gasoline as she gets ready to make an evening run to the grocery store. A male voice then accuses Kerry, a four-term senator from Massachusetts, of voting to “raise taxes” on gasoline, social security benefits, middle-class parents and married couples.

“More taxes because I’m married,” the woman says. “What were they thinking?”

Although the two events represent opposing viewpoints, they demonstrate that Bush and Kerry have at least one thing in common: a drive to mobilize female voters in the final weeks of the 2004 presidential election campaign.

Aside from the presidential campaigns, an array of programs sponsored by special interest groups have sprouted up to supplement the candidates’ efforts to get women to the polls on Election Day.

Taken together, the partisan and non-partisan efforts represent the most aggressive effort in recent memory to win the hearts and minds of America’s women, activists say. “People have an extra sense of urgency this year,” said NOW president Kim Gandy. “We’ve always been very active, but I see a renewed sense of urgency at the grassroots levels. Local activists are saying ‘I’m here, plug me in.'”

A Natural Target

Comprising one of the electorate’s largest and most reliable voting blocs, women are a natural target. They make up 54 percent of the population, 55 percent of registered voters and 60 percent of the electorate, Gandy said. Moreover, women as a group tend to make their decisions late in the game and are therefore a high percentage–about two-thirds–of swing voters, Gandy added. These factors combine to make them one of the most sought after constituencies, especially in an election as close as this one.

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway cites another reason for what she called “a more accelerated, aggressive campaign” to energize female voters. Over the past few years, political strategists have developed more sophisticated research techniques that have allowed candidates to target different slices of the women’s vote. That has come in handy especially for Republicans, who over the last two decades have trailed Democrats in their fight for support from women. The techniques, Conway said, have allowed Republicans to peel off certain segments–such as women entrepreneurs or investors in the stock market–of what otherwise is a monolithic constituency.

To attract these and other groups women, the Bush campaign has launched its W Stands for Women initiative, an effort designed to spur women to communicate the president’s message, volunteer for his campaign and recruit more women to support the incumbent.

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has launched what a spokesperson called “an absolutely unprecedented” effort to attract female voters. Called the Team Lead program, the RNC has recruited more than 25,000 supporters who are working with women’s groups to drum up support for their candidate by communicating the president’s mission and recruiting new supporters.

The Kerry camp, meanwhile, has recruited mothers and wives of servicemen and guardsmen to campaign against Bush in battleground states and has posted a Web site designed to attract businesswomen. The Democratic National Committee is supplementing that work with a program founded in 2001 called the Women’s Vote Center. The program conducts research to more specifically target female voters, recruits and trains female supporters to help spread the Democratic message via the Internet and more traditional methods and works with state parties to plan get-out-the vote drives.

“I don’t think that there’s any doubt that they’re paying more attention to women,” said Jon Delano, a political scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. “There’s an obvious reason: Women are going to elect the next president.”

Different Approaches

The two campaigns are taking different approaches, however. Republicans are zeroing in on married women–a swing group pollsters have dubbed “security moms”–to siphon off some of the women who supported Al Gore and Bill Clinton in the last three elections. Bush has emphasized homeland security and the global war on terror to attract these women in the hopes of reversing, or at least narrowing, a gender gap with women tending to support Democrats.

Democrats are taking a different tack. Rather than focusing on a group of undecided voters, they hope to increase turnout among a mammoth, progressive-minded constituency: single women, a group that responds to domestic issues such as the economy, health care and job and retirement security. The DNC launched a Take Five program to target the 22 million unmarried women who did not vote in 2000. In the program, women volunteer to take five such women to the polling booth on Nov. 2.

The Democrats are basing their plan on a study by Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake of unmarried women released December 2003 that showed that single women could have changed the outcome of the protracted presidential election in 2000 had they voted at the same rate as married women. Nationwide, 68 percent of married women voted in the 2000 presidential elections, according to the survey. But only 52 percent of single women voted–a phenomenon that sucked some 6 million potential voters out of a contest that hinged on a little more than half a million votes.

Activists Getting out the Vote

The presidential campaigns are not alone in their increased focus on women this year. A wide range of activist groups have organized their own efforts to get out the women’s vote next month.

Independent groups such as the Washington, D.C.,-based League of Women Voters and the New York City-based White House Project have launched voter mobilization programs aimed at all women, while other groups have focused on a slice of the female electorate. The Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Women, for example, is targeting minority women; Washington, D.C.,-based NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Northern Washington, D.C.-based EMILY’s List is working to energize pro-choice Democratic women.

Another organization, the Massachusetts-based National Network of Abortion Funds, has disseminated tens of thousands of voter-education pamphlets aimed at low-income young women of color. The pamphlets, written in Spanish and English, urge these women to join the fight to retain and expand abortion and reproductive rights.

Meanwhile, new organizations have sprouted up to bolster the work of existing organizations. A nonpartisan group, Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Voices. Women Vote, emerged to register and mobilize single women. So did another nonpartisan group, San Francisco-based 1,000 Flowers, which dispatches activists to nail and beauty salons to get single women who opt out of the process back in it. Another new group of senior women recently formed a national effort, called GrannyVoter, based in Washington, D.C., that encourages grandmothers and middle-aged and older women to vote.

Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at the Iowa State University, predicted that all of this attention on female voters will have at least a marginal effect on turnout among women, especially among minority, single and young female voters. If not, at least activists will learn more about the nuances of the female electorate, information that will come in handy for candidates in years to come, Conway said.

“We’re going to discover other attributes about women that are important to women,” she said.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

W Stands for Women:

Women for Kerry-Edwards:

One Vote: