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The Elections Will Depend on What Women Voters Want

October 04, 1998|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

Remember 1992? Women, angered by the U.S. Senate's handling of Anita F. Hill's testimony during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings and afraid the Supreme Court would strike at abortion rights, stormed the ballot box. They helped elect Bill Clinton president and gave California two Democratic women senators. This year, women again hold the key to the election. The question is whether--and how--they will use it.

Democratic leaders are always fretting about low turnout in midterm elections. Ellen Malcolm of Emily's List, which raises money for pro-choice Democratic women candidates, estimates turnout among women this year at roughly 78% of those who voted in 1996, a serious problem for Democrats nationally and in California, where Democratic registration is around 56% female. Malcolm projects that roughly 1.7 million fewer California women would vote in 1998 than cast ballots in 1992, when Barbara Boxer won her Senate seat by about 500,000 votes.

How the Monica S. Lewinsky affair might affect these projections remains mere speculation. Some polls have shown women more supportive of Clinton, particularly if job performance is a measurement. A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, taken before the release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report and the president's videotaped grand-jury testimony, indicated that Clinton's job approval remained high; six in 10 Californians gave him "good" or "excellent" marks.

But there was an interesting twist in these numbers. While 79% of Democrats rated Clinton's job performance good or excellent, only 31% of Democratic women gave him an excellent grade, compared with 40% of male Democrats. In addition, 53% of independent voters rated the president's job performance good or excellent. But only 46% of female independents gave Clinton good or excellent grades, compared with 58% of male independents.

Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, recently said that "Clinton isn't the first man I've had to forgive and he probably won't be the last." That fairly describes the attitudes of California's women voters, but forgiveness is not an emotion likely to propel them to the polls. Fear and anger are better motivators.

Boxer's GOP opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong, has muted his harsh attacks on the senator's response to Clinton's improper relationship. GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren has limited his toughest anti-Clinton rhetoric to gatherings of the party faithful. Are polls telling the two candidates that Clinton-bashing and Republican glee over White House scandal might push women to vote against them?

The GOP's "red meat" strategy makes sense if party leaders are betting on a low turnout, which tends to favor Republicans, whose age, education and economic status make them more likely voters. But it could alienate women.

So, hoping to dampen the potential spark of GOP anger over Clinton, Democrats are using the issue of abortion rights to energize their base, specifically liberals and women. A recent Los Angeles Times poll indicates the issue of abortion hurts Lungren slightly while it helps his opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. In debates and paid media, Davis hammers on Lungren's restrictive views and touts his own pro-choice stance.

Abortion rights also are important to Boxer's strategy. The Times poll shows that 51% of registered voters feel her views on abortion are closer to their own than Fong's, who supports abortion rights only in the first trimester of pregnancy. Even higher percentages of sought-after independent and moderate voters indicate they side with Boxer's views over Fong's (57% to 35% for independents, and 53% to 37% for moderates).

Boxer's fight against the proposed ban on late-term abortions highlights her differences with Fong. "No woman . . . wants to visit her doctor about her pregnancy and see her senator lurking over the doctor's shoulder," Boxer said during last month's Senate debate on whether to override the president's veto of the measure outlawing these abortions. The remark was aimed squarely at the women voters who are the heart of her support. They provided Boxer's narrow margin of victory in 1992, backing her by more than 5-3 over Republican Bruce Herschenson.

The Times poll shows a narrower gender gap, with 48% of the women supporting Boxer and 35% backing Fong. There are other potential danger signs for Boxer behind these numbers.

Boxer's support is highest among 18- to 29-year-old women; the gap narrows among older women, with those 65 years or older split about evenly between Boxer and Fong. Older women are high-propensity voters; younger females aren't. The poll also indicates that one in five female voters over 65 said Clinton's admission of an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky would make them more likely to vote this November (compared with only 5% of women 18-29 years old). Whose voters are these women?

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