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For women, ideology trumps the gender card

Female voters are judging Whitman and Fiorina more harshly than men, Times/USC poll finds.

October 26, 2010|By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

As their party's first female nominees for governor and U.S. Senate, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have run campaigns premised in part on the belief that they could attract women voters who typically brush aside the Republican Party. But new polls indicate that, if anything, women are treating their candidacies more harshly than are men.

Much of the reason for that is the heavily Democratic nature of California's female voters. But women have gone well beyond party alliance to cast a negative eye toward the two candidates on a host of character and personality issues.

When asked in a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll which candidate for governor — Democrat Jerry Brown or Republican Whitman — was more truthful, likely male voters said Brown by a 15-point margin, and women said Brown by 25 points. When asked whether they were more concerned about Whitman's sympathies for Wall Street or Brown's ties to unions, men cited Brown as their concern, by a 13-point margin. Women, by a 17-point margin, that they were more worried about Whitman.

Overall, men sided with Brown by 3 points but women backed him by 21 points. In the Senate race, the poll found men siding with Fiorina over Democrat Barbara Boxer by 2 points, while women sided with Boxer by 17 points.

A recent poll by the Public Policy institute of California came to similar conclusions, with women backing Brown by 14 points more than men did and Boxer by 16 points, while men backed Fiorina.

All told, the results of both surveys confirmed that ideology, not gender, is directing the vote in this tumultuous campaign season. The candidates in question are being seen as Republicans who happen to be women, rather than women who happen to be Republicans — a key distinction in a Democratic-tilting state.

"More than anything, it's party registration and ideology, and every Republican candidate knows that coming in," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall, a co-conductor of the survey for The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "That's why character is so important."

And character — or voters' presumptions about it — is hurting Whitman in particular in the wake of a difficult month in which it came to light that she had employed an illegal immigrant and in which her veracity was challenged by the Brown campaign and others. Whitman slumped from 5 points down in September to a 13-point deficit in October, chiefly due to defections by women, independent voters and Latinos.

"What trumps gender with women is the same thing that trumps gender with men," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant and interim director of the Times/USC poll. " It's, 'Who is this person? What kind of person am I voting for here?' as well as issues. Certainly, we've seen with the Whitman campaign that her problems are not about issues, it's about personality and character."

There are, of course, differences among women along the lines of party, ethnicity, age and education. But it is their differences with men on a range of matters that are the most striking.

In the Times poll, women disapproved of Proposition 23, which would suspend the state's global warming law, by 20 points; men disapproved by 11. Women disapproved of Proposition 19, which would legalize some marijuana cultivation and use, by 21 points; men were split. By 39 points, women approved of Proposition 25, which would reduce the legislative votes needed to pass a budget; men approved by 22 points.

Similar differences between men's and women's votes on the ballot measures were seen in the Public Policy Institute of California poll.

With the female candidates at the top of the ballot, this election resembles at first glance the 1992 election, in which Democrats Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were first seeking their Senate seats. That election was California's first big test of women on the ballot, and much of the pre-election conversation centered on the now-quaint question of whether voters would be comfortable filling both seats with women.

Women did not march in lockstep then, either: An exit poll by The Times found that women went for Feinstein by a 26-point margin, and for Boxer by 11 points. That was largely due to Boxer's weaker showing among moderate and conservative women.

But in their quest for women voters, those two candidates were bolstered by circumstances not shared by Whitman and Fiorina. They were running a year after the nation was embroiled in the sexual harassment-centered hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and after a key court decision limiting abortion rights. The nation was in a "throw the bums out" mood and women, then at least, were the antithesis of the Establishment.

There are several disadvantages for the Republican women now. Women voters have historically been more motivated by candidates who favor abortion rights; Whitman only favors some abortion rights and Fiorina has said she would support overturning Roe vs. Wade.

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