Don't be too quick to categorize the `women's vote'

September 26, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

We've had soccer moms, security moms, NASCAR dads, South Park Republicans and Yellow Dog Democrats - real or imagined archetypes that have emerged over the years to define the political leanings of various groups.

Surely someone now will have to come up with a label for those women who are closing the gender gap - which generally favors Democrats - between Maryland's gubernatorial candidates. As reporter John Fritze wrote this Sunday, The Sun's recent poll shows that Mayor Martin O'Malley's support among women went from an 11 percentage point lead over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in July to a 6 percentage point lead this month.

Maybe we could call them classroom moms, on the going theory that the Ehrlich ads on the problems of the Baltimore City schools - something he lays at O'Malley's feet - are helping him gain traction with women voters? Or are they maybe headbanger moms, who growl at the more mellow Celtic music that O'Malley plays?

I called several women who were polled by The Sun and, not surprisingly with such a small and unscientific sample, found neither classroom nor headbanger moms. Instead, I found a range of reasons why they supported one candidate or the other, or were still undecided.

Why, it was just like talking to a random group of ... men.

Gender and politics - it's one of those minefields that I'm loath to enter, and yet it's also hard to evade. For one thing, gender seems so broad a category. You never hear about the "men's vote" because of course there's no one such thing, but you regularly hear about the "women's vote." While there are issues that resonate with women - schools being one of them - they're not the only issues that women care about, says Karen M. Kaufmann, a University of Maryland professor who has researched gender differences in voting.

What Kaufmann has found is that the gender gap is real - women tend to be more liberal on social welfare spending and less hawkish on matters of war and security - but it "ebbs and flows" depending on the issues of the particular election. She doesn't think there's really a gender gap in this race, that the candidates' levels of support have remained fixed and that more people are starting to pay attention to the governor's race. (O'Malley has a 6 percentage point lead over Ehrlich among likely voters, the poll found, the same margin as in July.)

The other problem you get into when asking why women favor one male candidate over another is something that could be called the Dan Quayle factor - for the then-obscure Indiana politician who was added to the 1988 Bush presidential ticket supposedly because his blue-eyed, blond attractiveness would lure the women's vote.

Which is why, when I asked Marcia Morgan what she thinks of O'Malley, her first response was a sarcastic, "He's cute as a button, right?"

The fifty-something Chevy Chase resident is undecided at the moment, mainly because she's still trying to determine who lines up with her concerns, which range from abortion rights to stem cell research. She was impressed with what she saw of Ehrlich during the televised hearings he called to discuss the BGE rate increase, she but hasn't seen enough of O'Malley yet.

"He's in Baltimore, and since I live three blocks from the district line, Baltimore seems like another country," the retired flight attendant says.

Laura Mullen, who lives in Baltimore, told me she supports O'Malley because he's done a good job in the city. She wonders if Ehrlich's wife, Kendel, is helping him shrink the gender gap.

"Maybe the Ehrlichs present themselves more as a family unit?" Laura Mullen, 38, an administrative assistant at Baltimore City Community College.

"But Mrs. O'Malley is a judge," Mullen quickly notes. "She has her career as a judge."

Indeed, that is why Catherine "Katie" O'Malley isn't a presence on the campaign trail - judges are barred from participating in political events, says the mayor's campaign spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese.

You have to sympathize with political wives - they get criticized if they're perceived as too involved (Hillary Clinton) or not involved enough (Howard Dean's wife, Judith Steinberg). They can also be too adoring (Nancy Reagan) and not adoring enough (Teresa Heinz Kerry).

The two Ehrlich supporters I talked to had different reasons for their alliance: Joan Marconi, 75, is a registered Democrat in Baltimore County, but she just doesn't like O'Malley. "I don't like his eyes. I think he's sneaky. I think he's trying to jump too fast in his career."

Barbara Patz, 62, who lives in Baltimore County, thinks Ehrlich is fiscally responsible and someone who has done "a tremendously good job" running the state despite the opposition of the Democratic General Assembly.

So there you have it: the uncategorizable "women's vote." None of them mentioned soccer or security, which is fine with the UM's Kaufmann, who hates those labels.

"It's somewhat condescending," she says of the attempts to identify a fill-in-the-blank-mom vote. "It's like there's this one group of people who can't make up their mind and flop around in the political breeze."

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