Women's vote: elusive prize in Election 2000

Race, religion, and region all factor more heavily in how women vote than gender.

Liz Ingram Walsh is the kind of suburban swing voter - one of the much-hyped "soccer moms" - that both Al Gore and George W. Bush are working hard to cozy up to. But she bristles at the thought of being labeled that way.

A new mother from White Plains, N.Y., who's just resigned from her job, Ms. Walsh is a registered independent who voted for Bill Clinton in '92 and Bob Dole in '96.

"I'm either a conservative Democrat or a liberal Republican," she says, with her three-month-old daughter cooing in the background. "It really depends on the person."

With all the hype about the power of women's vote this year, the complexity of individual voters like Walsh sometimes gets lost in the media frenzy. Women are by no means a monolithic voting bloc. In fact, things like race, religion, and geography can play a greater role in women's voting behavior than gender. And any politician forgets that at his or her own peril.

"I don't think there's a women's vote, per se," says Anna Greenberg of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "There are areas where women are more liberal than men, and men are more conservative than women, but to say women are 'X' or men are 'Y' is a mistake."

There is no question that so-called women's issues - education, healthcare, Social Security, and gun control - are topping the political agenda this year for the first time in recent memory. And that's given fuel to "soccer mom" frenzy.

Because more women identify them as top concerns than men (in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, of the 28 percent who identified healthcare as their top issue, 61 percent were women) both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush are busily fashioning their accomplishments and promises to appeal to women.

Many pundits contend they're on the right track. And many women's activists believe that this year, unlike others billed that way, really could be the "year of the woman."

"These are issues that women have a real investment in, they have real leadership in, and ... they're more the experts in," says Marie Wilson, president of The Women's Leadership Fund. "If women really vote on the issues, they'll be much more informed and invested."

But studies have also found that things like race, religion, and region have much more of an effect on people's voting patterns than does gender. In fact, while women are rightly given credit for granting Bill Clinton his two victories in the 1990s, he really owes his debt to African-American women like Jetta Thomas. In 1992, she and 87 percent of black women voters cast their ballot for Clinton, compared with 41 percent of white women. In 1996, the split was 89 percent to 48 percent.

"The Republican party has historically endorsed policies that helped the really wealthy in this country," says Ms. Thomas, a confirmed Democrat, single mom, and management analyst for the Washington housing authority police. "Minorities really suffered under the Reagan/Bush administrations."

Black voters, in general, are one of the most Democratic voting blocs in the country, according to Ms. Greenberg.

Religion's role

Along with race, religion also plays a central role in women's voting behavior. There's a huge gap between voters who identify themselves as secular and religious.

"It doesn't even matter what denomination they belong to, religious women tend to be very Republican," says Greenberg. "And they are driven by issues like abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and school curriculum."

Highly educated secular women, on the other hand, are the core of the feminist vote and tend to vote Democratic.

But there's also a group of religious women who are driven by social-justice issues that shifts them to the left of the political spectrum. And as Ms. Walsh and Joann Wagner - a stay-at-home mother of three who also fits the "soccer mom" profile - attest, it is difficult make blanket judgments.

Both are Roman Catholics, and consider themselves to be very religious. Both are also unhappy with their choices this year, and are leaning in different directions.

Ms. Wagner, from Norfolk, Va., who was raised a Democrat, now calls herself "in between." And while she identifies with the Democrats on many social issues dealing with the poor, gun control, and healthcare, she's anti-abortion and says she doesn't trust Gore. So she's leaning toward voting for Bush.

Walsh, on the other hand, is pro-choice, feels strongly about gun control and healthcare, and is appalled at the state of affairs in Texas. She says she'll likely vote for Gore.

Location, location, location

Another difference between the two, which has also proven to have more impact on voting patterns than gender, is where they live.

Walsh lives in the Northeast, where the so-called gender gap, the difference between how men and women vote, is huge. Wagner lives in the South, where, as in the Rocky Mountain states, it barely exists.

But there are some things that women do have in common, across race, religion, and region. Some common factors stem from their often dual roles as homemakers and household-income earners.

Women tend to be very savvy shoppers who are looking for value: Who can provide the best price, the most convenience, and the highest quality.

"Women like to examine candidates like they do fruit in the supermarket," says Republican pollster Kelly Ann Fitzpatrick. "They like to poke it, smell it ... do a look see. And value isn't who's the member of my party, and who looks good, but it's really this entire cluster of intangibles like leadership, character, as well as the issues."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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