You let women vote, you get Bill Clinton

November 11, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- One last word before we file the Year of the Soccer Mom into the political calendar of cliches.

Somewhere along the way, the stressed-out, minivan-driving juggler of lives and roles was awarded the title of MVP in the competition for voters. She became the icon of 1996, nearly running over the Angry White Male of 1994 in her new Dodge Caravan.

But in politics, as in soccer, you have to use your head. A trip through the post-election world is a reminder that her role was a touch inflated.

Suburban, married moms with kids at home were never more than 6 percent of the voters. Gary Langer at the ABC News Polling Unit calls them simply the ''group du jour.'' He fairly sputters at the idea that they could swing anything but a headline.

They voted like women

More to the point, they didn't vote differently from what computer junkies like to call their ''parent'' group. In this case, their parent group was their gender group.

It was women as whole, women of all ages and athletic pursuits, who lived up to their political notices. If the exit polls prove to be right, this is the first time in American history that men alone would have elected a different candidate than women alone. Men chose Bob Dole 44 percent to 43 percent, while women chose Bill Clinton 54 percent to 37 percent.

This is precisely the doom that the anti-suffragists of the 19th century predicted for our forefathers if they let women get the vote.

This gender gap does not entirely compensate for the other one -- among winning candidates. In this election, it should be noted, only one woman -- ''volleyball mom'' Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire -- won a governor's seat. The number of women in the Senate and the House will remain virtually unchanged at nine and 48 or 49. The number of women in state legislatures may go down.

But it does say something about a successful strategy of appealing to women's concerns. Much was made of the ''feminizing'' of this campaign as if C-SPAN were now Lifetime, but it turned out that women cared most about -- ta dah -- issues.

The Republicans based their campaign on anti-Clinton, anti-government, anti-taxes. Then they tried to ''soften'' this message with a few pink ribbons, adding babies and biography to the convention rhetoric.

But the Democrats made a much more concerted and successful attempt to speak the female language. The sound bites and policy nibbles about V-chips and family medical leave were just one way that President Clinton connected with voters, who told those exit pollsters that he understood their lives.

The deeper differences came out of women's lives. Women seem to carry with them into the polling booth a complex view of the economy and of caretaking that goes beyond ''jobs'' and ''taxes.'' It's a connected sense of family and community, a wide-lens portrait of their self-interest and government's role.

As Linda Tarr-Whelan of the Center for Policy Alternatives says, ''Clinton talked about the future, especially about partnership, about community-building.'' These are the concerns raised by women in her own research. The ''women's issues'' were basics of education and health care and small businesses. ''Women wanted people to stop pointing fingers at each other and get on with it.'' That's a bumper sticker to put on the folks who shuttle between a Democratic White House and Republican Congress.

Not complacent

One thing women are not, however, is complacent.

Two years ago, in the Year of the Angry White Male -- also, if not equally, exaggerated -- I wrote suggesting that he was actually anxious. I got hundreds of letters from men saying, ''I'm not anxious, I'm angry!"

I developed a theory that the way to make an anxious man angry is to tell him he's anxious. When women are anxious, on the other hand, they tend to say pretty much what they feel. But their lower-decibel anxiety is often discounted.

In the aftermath of this victory at the gender gap, won by addressing women's worries, the new icon suddenly seems to be the Satisfied Citizen. A favorite take on the Clinton victory is that the incumbent won because people were pretty pleased.

Just for the record and before this one gets set in type, let me say that women, like men, are anxious -- about the future, the kids, the uncertainties of a changing time.

They told the exit pollsters that they think the country is going in the right direction. But as any soccer mom worth her moniker could tell you, even when you're going in the right direction, it can be a long, long way to the goal.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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