Women of the year

Linda DiVall

May 15, 1992|By Linda DiVall

I AM somewhat bemused about claims that 1992 is the year of the woman in American politics.

That's what pundits and newspaper headlines said over and over in the 1990 elections, too.

What makes so many analysts willing to speculate that women will be successful this year?

In early 1990 the environment seemed perfect for female candidates. Voters were growing hostile to the might of special interests and were worried about crime, drugs, education and the environment; then, as now, ethics charges were bandied about against Senate and House members.

But the focus changed in August with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, a crisis that soon occupied public attention.

Then, talks on the budget deficit drew attention to economic problems and, by the end of September, most feared the country was headed for a recession.

Paradoxically, voters seem to choose the status quo in times of instability.

As Kathleen Lydon, press secretary for Lynn Martin, an unsuccessful Senate candidate in Illinois, said, "In 1990, 'the year of the woman' became 'the year of the incumbent,' and because the incumbent is still primarily male, women ended up losing."

Of the 17 women who ran for the Senate or governor, only four won.

Why might 1992 be different from 1990? Here are a few theories.

First, of course, the Clarence Thomas hearings galvanized several women to run, including two winners of recent primaries, Carol Moseley Braun, Illinois Republican, and Lynn Yeakel, Pennsylvania Democrat.

Second, women more than men have an advantage in portraying themselves as outsiders, a popular label in a year of increased cynicism toward politicians and government.

According to an American Viewpoint national survey of 1,000 people from March 28 to April 1, 73 percent of the public agreed with this statement: "The entire political system is broken. It's run by insiders who don't listen to working people and are incapable of solving our problems."

The experience factor, which counted for so much in 1990, probably has never meant less than today. Women are seen as double outsiders because they are not a member of the club.

As of today at least 189 women are running for the Senate, House and governorships -- 160 of them as challengers. This is a higher number than usual.

Third, female voters are increasingly disaffected.

Our survey found that 72 percent of the respondents believe things have gotten seriously off track in the United States -- 68 percent of men and 76 percent of women.

Forty-four percent of the people surveyed said they thought a new person ought to be elected to Congress from their district; 37 percent wanted the incumbent re-elected.

Men split evenly on whether they wanted to see the incumbent re-elected, 40 percent to 39 percent.

But women are clearly dissatisfied: 48 percent said they wanted a new Representative, while 35 percent supported the incumbent.

What is significant about this finding is that women are traditionally more inclined to support the status quo and resist change.

Our polling consistently shows that the public believes women are more likely to speak out honestly about the issues and stand up for what they believe regardless of political consequences, to be moral and upright and to understand the problems facing the middle class better than male candidates do.

The lessons of 1990, however, suggest that a shifting national agenda -- like the focus on the aftermath of the Los Angeles rioting and the discussion of law and order, civil rights and the underlying causes of social unrest and decay in cities -- may change the way voters view candidates, especially women candidates.

Still, the traditional strengths of women candidates, riptide of voters' dissatisfactions and sense that the system isn't working may make 1992 women's year.

Linda DiVall is president of American Viewpoint Inc., a firm that conducts polls for Republicans.

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