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The Republican Women Behind Bush's Victories : Politics: When there is no pro-choice candidate, the issue becomes who is better on women's issues? In November, abortion rights will matter.

March 15, 1992|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

It happens every so often in U.S. politics. Voter behavior leaves pundits speechless--at least for a minute. The technical term for the phenomenon is the "Say what ?" factor. It's at work in this year's Republican presidential primaries.

Exit polls indicate that GOP women are voting overwhelmingly for President George Bush. Who are these women?

Are they the same women who, furious at the spectacle of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Faye Hill hearings, raged at the insensitivity of the President and his crew to women and their concerns?

Are they the same women who, in the wake of the Webster decision, which allows states to restrict access to abortion, bitterly lashed out at the White House over the issue of abortion-rights?

Well, yes.

So why are these Republican women supporting Bush in the primaries and what, if anything, do they want in return?

Polling data give few clues, and even savvy GOP activists are mystified.

The simple answer is that, as one woman put it, GOP women are "unnerved by Patrick J. Buchanan. He scares the hell out of them."

The "bully thing" resonates. But that's only part of it.

Political analyst Alan Baron has a theory that might help explain what's happening. Women, he contends, represent the "party of stability" in society, men "the party of change." Women's preference for order dramatically affects their stands on issues.

For example, polls show women, in contrast to men, tend to favor a ban on guns, a position commonly regarded as liberal. But they also tend to favor prohibitions on pornography, a conservative position. Baron resolves this apparent inconsistency by arguing that women see both guns and porno as disrupting life, as threats to stability. And when societal stability is threatened, the potential for a gender gap in voting patterns is greatest.

It occurred in the 1980 general election, when Ronald Reagan represented radical change. Women voted in droves for Jimmy Carter. It is happening in the '92 GOP primaries, in which Buchanan is the messenger of radical change.

When the abortion-rights issue is framed in Baron's terms, its political potential becomes clear. For women most affected by abortion policy, the status quo today is Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting a woman's right to choose abortion. The threat comes from the Webster decision and the Pennsylvania case now before the court, both of which narrow those rights.

But Bush's opposition to abortion rights hasn't hurt him in the primaries. Why?

Because there is no pro-choice candidate running in the GOP primaries, choice is not an issue. So the question becomes, as one GOP woman explained, "Who is better on women's issues with choice out of the equation?"

There is a widespread perception that Bush's conservative stands are late-blooming and, at least on some issues, more a matter of political convenience than deep-rooted conviction. Remember his vow to do whatever is necessary to win reelection?

By contrast, what apparently frightens women is that Buchanan really believes what he says. As such, he is far more dangerous.

As Coco Chanel once said, "Sinners can repent, but stupid is forever." So when confronted with a choice between a charlatan and a zealot, GOP women are lining up with the lesser of two evils.

Said one California GOP activist: "Women believe that, deep down, their chances to succeed and shape the agenda to their own needs is greater with Bush than Buchanan, whom they've written off."

Still, exit polls indicate that turnout among women in the GOP primaries is low. "If the turnout is low," says a Republican consultant who runs women's campaigns, "pro-choice women stayed home" to protest Bush and Buchanan.

That doesn't bode well for the President, come fall. In 1988, the folks who brought you a "kinder, gentler" Bush were able to narrow the gender gap vis-a-vis Michael S. Dukakis by doing everything short of embracing abortion rights to attract GOP women. That may not work this time, because three things have changed. The emotional intensity surrounding abortion rights has heightened dramatically. The economy has soured. And politics has entered the post-Thomas-Hill era--women are less willing to be bullied by male politicians.

A reviving economy would boost Bush's reelection chances. But that alone may not be enough to bring pro-choice GOP women back, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or narrows the protections of Roe vs. Wade. "If moderate, centrist women can't choose between Bush and a Democrat, they may stay home (in November)," said the GOP consultant. "Women who feel strongly (about Roe) will turn out to vote for Democrats." Bush can't afford to let that happen in competitive, pro-choice states like California.

On Super Tuesday, Vice President Dan Quayle confidently proclaimed, "The (Buchanan) protest vote will come back in November. You can count on that."

But watch out, Danny boy. While you guys have been out protecting your white, male conservative flank, the bulk of Buchanan's support, another protest is simmering. It is in the middle. It is among women. And it has only just begun.

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