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Wooing women voters is no simple issue

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Once again, female voters are in the spotlight of the 2004 presidential campaign, as candidates tailor their appeals to highlight issues thought to concern women; organizations encourage more women to vote; and the media conjure up the latest “group de jour” — security moms – and announce that it’s the key to this very close election.

Before you get lost in the hype about women and the 2004 election, here are some current facts, and a little bit of history, about the role of women in the political process.

•After winning the right to vote in 1920, women have constituted the majority of U.S. voters since 1964. Since 1980, the proportion of eligible females who voted has exceeded the proportion of eligible males who voted. As women constitute more than half of the U.S. population, they have cast between 4 million and 8 million more votes than men in recent elections.

•The gender gap is the difference between the percentage of women and the percentage of men voting for a certain candidate. It is not, as many media outlets report, the differences in support among women (or among men) for both candidates.

In every election since 1980, a gender gap has been apparent, ranging from 4 percentage points in 1992 to 11 points in 1996 for the winning candidate. In 2000, men were 10 percentage points more likely than women to vote for President Bush; women were 11 percentage points more likely than men to vote for Al Gore.

Although it has been speculated that the President is doing better with women voters this election, a Zogby poll conducted last week shows that men are 10 points more likely than women to vote for Bush—or the same gender gap shown for the President in 2000—and women are 6 points more likely than men to vote for John Kerry. According to a Zogby poll conducted in mid-September, Kerry holds sizable gender gap advantages in 16 battleground states.

• The marriage gap between married and unmarried voters of both sexes has grown from 17 points in 1984 to 21 points in 1992, 29 points in 1996 and 32 points in 2000. According to the aggregate results of Gallup polls taken between March and August, there is a 38-point difference in the presidential preferences of married and unmarried women voters in 2004. Married women prefer Bush and unmarried women prefer Kerry.

The marriage gap is getting more attention this year because of the closeness of 2000 election. Both presidential campaigns and a number of organizations are working to register and turn out women voters. For example, “Women’s Voices. Women’s Vote”. was formed to increase the share of unmarried women—single, divorced, separated and widowed—in the electorate. These women make up 42 percent of all registered female voters. However, only 52 percent of single women voted in 2000, compared with 68 percent of married women. If single women had voted in the same proportion as married women in 2000, 6 million more people would have gone to the polls.

Which brings us to “security moms,” who were known as “soccer moms” before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some polls have shown that these married upper-middle and upper-class white suburban women with children are most concerned with homeland security issues, whereas single women care most about job security, affordable health care, quality education and Social Security. However, other polls show that “security moms” make up only 6 percent of the electorate and are no more likely than other voters to name terrorism or Iraq as their top voting issue.

Diane Bystrom is the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. She is the lead editor of a book on female and male political candidate communication and co-director of a national research project on the 2004 campaign.

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