NPR logo Kerry Tries to Reopen the Gender Gap

Kerry Tries to Reopen the Gender Gap

While President Bush was appearing in Washington with Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister of Iraq, a group of wives and mothers were starring at a Democratic rally in Davenport, Iowa. Separated by 1,000 miles, the two events were very much part of the two-party battle for the votes of America's women.

"Anybody who says that we were safer with Saddam Hussein in power is wrong," said the president in the Rose Garden.

But in Davenport, women who either lost their husbands on Sept.11, 2001, or who have sent family members to Iraq, said Saddam Hussein was not the point. The real threat, they said, was terrorism.

"We need to know that we are safer living in this country," said Kristin Breitweiser, one of the 9/11 widows on stage in Iowa. "I do not feel safe living in this country, I think that so much work remains to be done, and I know that John Kerry as president will make this nation safer than it is today."

Breitweiser has become a well-recognized media figure as a spokeswoman for the families of 9/11 victims. She and some of her cohorts from New Jersey were instrumental in the creation of the bipartisan 9/11 commission, and they have been derided by some as the "Jersey Girls."

Although Breitweiser says she voted for Bush in 2000, she and her group have now endorsed Sen. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, whose campaign has them on the road in swing states. But their target audience is not geographic so much as demographic. They are speaking to the women voters whose allegiance is in flux this fall.

Recent polls show that the voters moving back and forth between the candidates are primarily women — and, some say, they are women who are particularly concerned about terrorism.

That's why, as he strives to overtake the incumbent, Kerry is switching gears. He's launched a series of sharp attacks on the president and his conduct of the war in Iraq. Kerry has used words like "incompetence" and "quagmire" in his speeches and now in his political ads.

He's calling attention to a disastrous week in Iraq in which American citizens have been beheaded, pictures of the atrocities have been released to the press and U.S. authorities have come no closer to capturing the group involved or rescuing remaining hostages. On several occasions in this same period, young Iraqi men lining up to apply for work with the new government have been slaughtered by bombers.

On the subject of terror, Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, told the Iowans the United States was not safer today. He said President Bush "let Osama bin Laden escape" and "went to war [in Iraq] without a plan to win the peace." Earlier in the week, Kerry himself was considerably more pointed, speaking in Florida about "Osama bin forgotten."

All this has directly to do with the gender gap, the difference in the way men and women vote. Traditionally a product of peace and war, the gap first became significant (producing different national outcomes depending on gender) at the end of the Cold War when a national debate began on how to spend the so called "peace dividend."

Expensive missile systems and costly new aircraft no longer seemed crucial to keeping the nation safe in a post-Cold War world, and women began to push for money to go to other uses. While men were still willing to spend money on weapons, women were looking at education and health care, particularly care for the elderly. Women and men began voting differently enough to make a difference, with women somewhat more likely to vote for Democrats.

Women helped elect President Bill Clinton twice and were an important factor in the extremely close contest in 2000. But then the terror attacks of Sept. 11 closed the gender gap. As in the Cold War years, when the American people felt their security threatened, there was no meaningful difference in the response of men and women.

That situation continued from late 2001 until the beginning of 2004, according to Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, whose polls you hear about on NPR. With the election year, the gap was back again, with women more likely to favor Democrats. When Kerry pulled ahead of the president in the polls last summer, he did it on the strength of an 11-point lead among women, the classic gender-gap margin.

But that lead with women collapsed, together with Kerry's lead in the overall polls, after the president's successful convention. For a couple of weeks it looked as if the Republican Party had forcefully made the case that keeping families safe here at home was something the president could do better.

Now, as more polls are showing the race closer again, women are moving back to favoring Kerry — although not by as much as in the past.

What is different is that Kerry is not pursuing the conventional approach to the women's vote. Rather than emphasizing domestic issues to draw those women back, Kerry has decided to fight war with war.

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