GOP stumbles over the gender gap

Why can't America's women be more like its men? That's what Republicans are wondering after Election '86, in which women voters helped Democrats pick up eight seats in the United States Senate.

Without the women's vote, Republicans would probably have hung on to Senate seats in Georgia, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Nevada, and the GOP would have probably picked up seats in Colorado, Louisiana, and possibly California. In other words, the Senate would still be Republican by a comfortable margin.

Generally, women gave Democrats 5 to 10 percentage points more of their votes than men did in Tuesday's elections for the Senate. In US House races, women gave Democrats 6 percent more of their votes than men did.

This troubles the White House. Mitchell Daniels, the President's chief political adviser, says there are no obvious explanations for female antipathy toward the Republican Party, which could be hurt again in 1988 unless it finds a way to win the hearts of America's women.

``Woman power'' showed up clearly in ABC-TV exit polls of 43,000 people on election day.

In North Carolina, for example, Republican Sen. James T. Broyhill carried the men's vote by a wide margin. But challenger Terry Sanford carried the women's vote by an even bigger margin, and won.

In North Dakota, only a couple of thousand votes separated incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Andrews and his victorious Democratic challenger, Kent Conrad. The entire winning margin came from women.

Surveys of both men and women on key issues don't turn up obvious differences. No single issue dominated the recent election with either sex. Women said that the most important things to them were keeping the US out of war, the economy, the budget deficit, unemployment, and illegal drugs. Men were no different.

So what's happening? US Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado says women vote Democratic because ``the issues they care about - the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminization of poverty, and peace - are a priority with the Democratic Party.''

Mr. Daniels of the White House observes that 10 years ago, men and women supported Republicans in approximately equal numbers. But in those days, total Republican support was much lower than it is today.

Then the party began to expand under Reagan. Millions of men and women became new supporters, but men gravitated toward the party in greater numbers.

Daniels isn't sure why. But he believes that ``defense policy could be problem No. 1 with women.'' He explains: ``Defense probably has more appeal to men.''

When the choice is ``guns and butter,'' women may opt for more services for the people at home, a Democratic priority, rather than defense abroad, Daniels says.

The GOP has sought to meet the problem in a number of ways, primarily by empowering women with top-level jobs, such as Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, and running women for top jobs, such as Paula Hawkins for senator in Florida.

Even that doesn't always cut through female resistance. In Florida, for example, Mrs. Hawkins got a far higher percentage of support from men than from women. The fact that she was a Republican seemed to outweigh the fact that she was a woman.

In Nebraska, where Republicans nominated state treasurer Kay Orr to run for governor, Ms. Orr won - but no thanks to women. They voted overwhelmingly (55 percent) in favor of her opponent, another woman, Democrat Helen Boosalis.

There is, of course, another side to the ``gender gap'' issue. That is the Democratic weakness with men.

One analyst says the Democrats, with their opposition to arms programs and the contras in Nicaragua, have developed a ``feminine'' image with voters. Meanwhile, Ronald (Pumping Iron) Reagan, with his big military buildup, his contra program, his freeing of Grenada, and his tough line with the Soviets, has given the GOP a masculine, ``Rambo'' image. The voting split results.

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