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The State : California's Latest Gender Gap: Males Voting for Male Candidates

October 09, 1994|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

The anthem of the 1992 elections was "I am woman, hear me roar!" The theme for 1994 could well be "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

Indeed, if a gender gap develops this year in California, it could favor male candidates.

In the race for California governor, a recent Los Angeles Times Poll showed a 14-point gender gap in support among men for Gov. Pete Wilson and state Treasurer Kathleen Brown. Of all registered male voters, 53% supported Wilson, 39% backed Brown (as compared with the advantage Brown enjoys among women, 48% to 40%). More critical, almost one-third of Democratic men said they would vote for Wilson. Brown is drawing only 15% of Republican women, while the governor is attracting about one in five Democratic women.

In the U.S. Senate contest, a recent KCAL poll reflected a decisive gender gap. Men favored Rep. Mike Huffington over Sen. Dianne Feinstein by 51% to 40%, while women supported Feinstein over her challenger by 48% to 32%.

Clearly, 1994 is not 1992 redux. The political climate and the dominant issues are different. The voters' mood may be the same--anti-government, anti-politician--but it's grown meaner. None of this is helpful to women candidates.

Two years ago, many women were politically galvanized by what they considered to be the Senate's indifference to Anita F. Hill's charges of sexual harassment against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. They also feared that Roe vs. Wade was threatened.

This year, no comparable issue capable of mobilizing women as a voting group has surfaced. Quite the contrary. Voter concerns are not perceived as "women's issues." This is particularly true in California, where crime and illegal immigration are driving the campaign.

Feinstein managed early on to inoculate herself against the perception that women are weak on these issues by taking tough stands. Yet, despite her "tough" credentials, Feinstein finds herself in a close race.

One aspect of the '92 political climate still prevails: voter anger at politics-as-usual. In 1992, women were viewed as outsiders and ran, quite successfully, on a platform of change. Well, the day they got elected they all became part of the problem--politicians. They entered the system and the system didn't change.

That's part of Feinstein's problem. It's not gender-specific. It reflects a national pattern: Sen. Feinstein is a Democrat, an incumbent and in trouble.

The anti-incumbent backlash doesn't appear to be hurting Wilson, though. Maybe that's because some voters are using the Wilson-Brown race as a referendum on Bill Clinton, with Brown a convenient stand-in for the highly unpopular President. Maybe it's because voters perceive the governor's race as just another punch-out between two Sacramento politicians.

There may be another dynamic at work. It has to do with a theory, promulgated by Alan J. Baron, the late political analyst, that women represent the "party of stability" in society. Women more than men value a sense of societal order, he argued, and this preference for order dramatically affects their voting behavior.

It may thus be no accident that the tag line that flashes across a current Wilson attack ad reads: "Kathleen Brown: Can We Afford the Risk?"

A continuing criticism of Brown's candidacy has been her inability to articulate her stands and why she wants to be governor. As one young professional woman, who should be the archetypal Brown voter, explained her decision to support Wilson, "I may not agree with Pete Wilson's politics, but at least I know what he will do as governor. I just don't know what Kathleen Brown will do."

To address such voter concerns, Brown retooled her message last week in a 62-page plan that her campaign described as "a set of concrete, common-sense proposals . . . clearly designed to answer" the questions "Who is she?" and "Why should we vote for her for governor?" But an already skeptical electorate may view the plan as merely political--no matter how noble the goals--because of its end-of-the-campaign timing.

Aware of the difference women voters made in the outcome of the 1992 elections (in California, they provided the margin of victory for Sen. Barbara Boxer), the California Democratic Party has launched the first-ever program to target occasional women voters--women who were motivated to come out in the 1992 presidential election but had stayed home in the 1990 gubernatorial election or last June's primary.

But the political demography of 1994 appears to more closely reflect 1990 than 1992. In 1990, the gender gap that helped give Feinstein a dramatic victory over her male opponent in the Democratic gubernatorial primary closed in the weeks before the general election. As the state's economy faltered and the specter of war in the Persian Gulf began to invade the state's consciousness, the political focus began to move toward "harder" issues tending to favor male candidates and Republicans. In the end, partisan and ideological considerations drove the voters' decisions far more than gender.

Brown may have best summed up the dynamic of this election year. She once said she had three assets--"I am a woman, a Democrat and a Brown"--and three liabilities--"I am a woman, a Democrat and a Brown."

At this late stage of the electoral game, it appears her liabilities are outweighing her assets.*

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