Key Swing Vote in 1998: Women

More women lean Democratic, but party must get them to the voting booth.

Most of the time Kathy Griffin feels more harried and pressed than part of a potent political force.

But in fact, the single working mom in Hoboken, N.J. - and other women across America - hold the key to the coming 1998 midterm elections.

If they turn out to vote in large numbers, they could turn political wisdom on its head, and shift control of Congress and the direction of the country as it heads into the next millennium.

Polls show that the "gender gap" - the difference between the way men and women vote - has grown larger than ever. And more and more women, like Ms. Griffin, are leaning Democratic. That has strategists, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, aiming for their attention.

"Women make up the majority of voters; they can swing an election one way or the other," says Carolyn Jefferson Jenkins, president of the League of Women Voters. "The challenge is to get them to vote."

In this midterm election, that's going to be a big challenge. The economy's good, the country's at peace, and there's no big political fight over Social Security or the future of Medicare burning up the political agenda. Experts are predicting turnout could reach an all-time low.

That presents Democrats with their biggest challenge. If women stay home in large numbers, as they did in 1994, Republicans gain the advantage. If, on the other hand, the Democrats can get women to the polls in large numbers, as they did in the 1996 presidential race, they have the potential to turn the House back to a Democratic majority.

"Turnout is key," says Mary Beth Cahill, executive director of Emily's List, an organization that funds pro-choice candidates.

A recent poll done for Emily's List shows the congressional race is dead even - 44 percent of Americans are leaning Democratic and 44 percent tilt Republican.

But break that down along gender lines and a different picture emerges. Women prefer Democratic candidates by a 51 percent to 38 percent - a 13-point margin. Men prefer Republican candidates by 50 percent to 37 percent - also a 13-point margin. That brings the gender gap to a historic 26 points. "If Democrats win, it will be because of women," says Ms. Cahill.

SO Democrats must get women to the polls, particularly "drop-off" voters. Those are people like Kathy Griffin who tend to vote in presidential elections, but not in the midterm races. Right now, politics is one of the furthest things from her mind.

"I'm so crazed with having a baby, that if I see the news once a week, I'm doing well," says Griffin as her one-year-old daughter squeals and laughs in the background.

Her day-care center has taken the week off, so Griffin has had to take the baby to work. It's not surprising that increasing access to affordable day care tops Griffin's list of political priorities, along with education and health care. And that's why, she says, she is a Democratic voter. She trusts the party will put her priorities first.

"Women have traditionally felt more vulnerable, and the safety net - whether it's for older women, women in poverty, or single heads of households - has been a more immediate experience in their lives," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Traditionally, the Democratic Party has been associated with that safety net."

But the GOP is now determined to change that fundamental identification.

Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington - now the highest ranking woman in Congress - is spearheading a three-year national drive to woo women into the Republican ranks.

The problem, she says, is not the Republican agenda or its accomplishments, but how these are translated to voters.

"We were harsh in our rhetoric, and that's something we're trying to address," says Ms. Dunn. "We do want to downsize government and cut back taxes, but we also need to say what we're for positively."

Dunn says Republicans need to "finish their sentences." Instead of just talking about doing away with the Department of Education, they need to tell voters they hope to put that money back into the classrooms.

Indeed, political analyses of voting patterns show that women also respond much more favorably than men do to candidates who take policy issues and bring them home to the personal, anecdotal level.

In 1996, for example, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole focused mostly on straight policy, talking tough about taxes. President Clinton, on the other hand, followed almost every policy announcement with a personal story. That's one reason political experts say he won in 1996, with the biggest gender gap ever recorded.

"You have to personalize your message, that's what brings it home to the female voting population," says Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

While some Republicans work on softening their message and improving their connection to women, that may not be enough to shrink the gender gap - primarily because of deep ideological divisions within the Republican Party.

"When [Senate majority leader] Trent Lott comes out gay-bashing like he did a few weeks ago, he turns off all sorts of Republican moderates and Republican women who believe in civil liberties," says Ms. Mandel. "It makes it even more difficult to find a set of issues and a language to appeal to broad constituencies."

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