Debunking the `security mom' myth

October 07, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- May I admit to being relieved that the spotlight is off the "security mom"? I was beginning to cringe every time she came on the screen, touted as the woman whose fear of terrorism would swing the election.

The image had evolved into a stereotype of a mother hiding in her cave beside her kids trying to decide which of the two males was more alpha. Now the "security mom" is beginning to take her place as an urban -- or should I say suburban? -- legend. She's slowly receding into the ether of pollsterdom.

"The whole security mom thing is bogus," says pollster Anna Greenberg, a chief debunker. For openers, those legendary security moms -- white married women with children under 18 -- are only 22 percent of all women. And only one in four puts terrorism at the top of her list.

More to the point, they aren't swinging. The married white women with young children are mostly and reliably conservative.

Never mind all the anecdotes about undecided moms scared straight into the arms of the president. They are, by and large, voting for President Bush because they already are Republicans. They are more likely to align with Mr. Bush on faith and values than security.

I never could figure why Mr. Bush would make women in particular feel safer. Donna Brazile, who headed the Gore campaign, tells about watching a focus group in 2000 when a woman said that picking a candidate was like picking a prom date. Al Gore would arrive with a corsage and ask permission from her parents. Mr. Bush would just tool up to the door in his convertible -- but she'd dash off with him in a heartbeat.

Four years later, she may have learned that going off to the prom with a guy is different from going off to war. It's not such a stretch to see her dashing date as a breezy risk-taker who didn't buckle his seat belt before he invaded a country. Mr. Bush may be unwavering, but how many women who fell for a man who was certain and strong grew up to discover, in John Kerry's memorable phrase, "you can be certain and be wrong"?

As for collective mom-ness, mothers may be deeply protective of their children, but protection comes in as many shapes and sizes as mothers. There's bound to be a different idea of safety if your children are 8 and in the schoolyard or 18 and in the National Guard. When Debbie Walsh at the Center for American Women and Politics attended a focus group of older women, she found their chief worry was that their grandchildren might be drafted. Are they security grandmas?

I'm not denying women's concerns about security. Whether it is domestic violence or crime in the streets or terrorism after 9/11, women are more likely to worry that they or theirs are vulnerable. Only 17 percent of men are concerned that a member of their family will be the victim of a terrorist attack, says pollster Celinda Lake. Compare that with 43 percent of women and 53 percent of mothers with children under 18.

But if you are looking for gender gaps, try this disheartening number: About 40 percent of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. That's 29 percent of men and 47 percent of women.

Mr. Kerry went a long way in the first debate in countering the image battered home by Republicans of an unsteady, undependable flip-flopper. On the split screen, the president didn't even look like he'd be promising prom material.

But neither man has clinched the deal with the real undecideds, about two-thirds of whom are women. Women are as much as 72 percent of the undecided voters in Pennsylvania and 68 percent in Florida. Unlike the security moms of myth, these women have a more elaborate view of security that also includes health care security, retirement security, economic security.

We've had an election dominated by talk of war and terrorism. The late deciders, including the half of all women voters who are unmarried, haven't heard nearly enough of the issues that will draw them out of their indecision, not to mention out of their homes and to the polls.

There are three weeks and two debates to go. My maternal instinct says that these undecided women aren't looking for an alpha president as much a candidate who can talk to them. On that score they are still feeling very insecure.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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