(WOMENSENEWS)–Over 62 million women voted in this year’s election, supporting George W. Bush in higher numbers than in 2000 and reducing the gap between how men and women voted.
While people tend to differ over why John Kerry failed to capture a greater percentage of women’s votes, many agree that the outcome demonstrates the need to explore a broad spectrum of issues, from women’s concerns over national security, to so-called moral values, to the need to appeal to female voters earlier and with greater intensity.
The gender gap–the difference between the percentage of women and men who support a given candidate–was 7 percentage points this year, with 48 percent of female voters and 55 percent of male voters supporting Bush, according to most exit polls and nonpartisan voter-monitoring groups.
In 2000, the gap was 10 percentage points, with 43 percent of female voters and 53 percent of male voters coming out in favor of Bush, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
Since 1980, when women first began voting at higher rates than men and the gender gap won greater public attention, the average spread between the vote of women and men has been 7.7 percent, said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Rutgers center.
“This year was actually pretty average,” she told Women’s eNews. “That said, Kerry did less well with women voters [in comparison with Al Gore], with only 51 percent of the vote versus Gore’s 54 percent. In that difference lies the reason that Kerry didn’t win the popular vote and Gore did.”
Women’s Issues Addressed Late in the Game
Carroll echoed the opinion of many political analysts and women’s advocates when she suggested that Kerry began prioritizing women’s issues too late in the game.
“He was so concerned with establishing his commander-in-chief credentials,” Carroll said, that he failed to address other important issues such as job security, retirement benefits and health care.
When Kerry did begin to really talk about those issues–in the presidential debates and the final weeks of the campaign–Carroll said he “wasn’t always effective in the way he talked about them.” His tone came off as distant and overly formal, she said.
“He made many women wonder, ‘Do you really understand my concerns and the kind of difficulties I’m having?'” Carroll said, noting that Kerry’s softer, more personal tone in Wednesday’s concession speech perhaps marked one of the few times in the campaign when he was really “forceful in connecting with people.”
Security and Moral Values Trump Other Issues
Others, however, argued that women’s concerns over health care and the economy were ultimately trumped by concerns over terrorism and national security
“The security issue drove women more than we understood,” said Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, a non-partisan organization that works to get women to the polls and to enhance women’s participation in all levels of government.
Wilson noted some people’s contention that Kerry did not come down firmly enough in his views on the Iraq war, but she said that groups appealing to female voters and the Democratic Party as a whole failed to adequately address security concerns as well.
“We really should have tackled it more,” she said, “and we need to figure that one out” before the next election.
However, most exit polls found that in addition to security issues, for about 1-in-5 of the more than 115 million voters, so-called moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality were the most important factor in helping them decide who to vote for.
When it came to Bush supporters, these issues held particular sway: 80 percent said “moral values” were a huge factor in determining their vote, according to Edison/Mitofsky nationwide exit polls.
Kerry lacked a moral message that mainstream voters could latch onto, said Nancy Pfotenhauer, president of the Washington-based Independent Women’s Forum. The nonprofit group describes itself as “established to combat the women-as-victim, pro-big-government ideology of radical feminism.” Instead, it says, it works to advance the principles of “self-reliance, political freedom, economic liberty and personal responsibility.”
“Kerry was hurt by his inability to distance himself from the radical elements of his party,” Pfotenhauer told Women’s eNews. She singled out such hot-button topics as abortion and gay marriage, contending that issues like “partial-birth” abortion were seen as radical and off-putting, alienating many who otherwise consider themselves pro-choice.
Gay marriage initiatives, she said, asked self-described “tolerant” religious voters “to move from tolerating to endorsing something their faith told them was wrong.” This led voters to come out overwhelmingly in support of state measures that would ban the gay marriage, she said.
Gender Gap and Abortion
Not everyone sees such a clear “moral majority” message in the Republicans’ congressional and presidential victories.
Nancy Northup, president of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization, said the gender gap provides no indication of how U.S. women feel about abortion rights. Even though abortion rights were on the table in this election, she said concerns over the appointment of activist judges to the Supreme Court and the fight over a possible federal abortion ban were not emphasized greatly.
“We can’t look at this as a referendum or a comment on how important Roe vs. Wade is to voters,” she said, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that provided women the constitutional right to abortion. A Bush vote was not necessarily an anti-abortion vote, she argued, just as a Kerry vote was not solely based on his pro-choice stance.
In the end, many said, the shrinking gender gap and the success of conservative candidates can serve as an important lesson in the importance of appealing directly to female voters at all times, not only in the waning weeks of an election season. It is also a call to action for the Democratic Party, some said.
“This is an opportunity for the Democrats to answer the question, ‘What do we stand for?'” Pfotenhauer said. “They need to come up with an agenda that strikes a chord with mainstream America, and the Right must keep an eye on that ball as well.”
Robin Hindery is a writer for Women’s eNews in New York City.
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