Does terrorism threaten single men or women? One could be forgiven for thinking it doesn't when listening to John Kerry's latest pronouncements on terror. At Temple University the other day, Kerry explained that terrorism is a grave threat to mothers in particular. Terrorism "goes to the very heart of what we value most -- our families," he said. "It strikes at the bond between a mother and child."
Whether the overriding goal of terrorists is actually to strike at maternal bonding is open to debate, but Kerry has clearly been reading his poll numbers. The Beslan school massacre played out a parent's worst nightmare on TV screens everywhere, and had a discernible effect on the attitudes, and voter preferences, of married women almost immediately.
Republican strategist David Winston says the economy and jobs had been the top concerns of married women all year, but defense and terrorism became the top issues in August, after the Democratic Convention (where there was lots of talk of terrorism, in between the Vietnam flashbacks). Then terror and defense became even more important for married women in September in the wake of the Beslan massacre. "Women are engaging on defense and terror because of what they saw at that school," says Winston. "It made the threat very present and very vivid."
According to Time magazine, Kerry had a typical Democratic lead of 50 percent to 36 percent among women generally in early August. The lead evaporated in early September, and now the two candidates are essentially tied among women -- Kerry 44 percent, Bush 43 percent. Other polls show President Bush ahead among women.
Married women worried about terrorism have been dubbed -- in the latest cutesy name describing a boutique demographic group -- "security moms." According to GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, they include both the famous "soccer moms" from the 1990s -- suburban moms who tend to be liberal on abortion, guns and the environment -- and blue-collar moms, who are less well-off than their suburban counterparts. Among both groups Bush has leads on key attributes, such as strong leadership and sticking by his positions. It isn't, says Conway, that the soccer moms have abandoned their liberal-leaning views on social issues, just that those issues have been eclipsed by terrorism and homeland security.
The Bush/Kerry tie among women has engendered much commentary about how "the gender gap has disappeared." Actually, the gap is as yawning as ever. Bush still leads Kerry among white men by double digits, a considerable "gap" among a certain "gender." But the media has never dubbed the GOP lead among men a "gender gap" quite worthy of endless commentary and dozens of Kennedy School panels.
In reality, the race between the two parties has always been about which could deal with its gender problem first. The prominence of terrorism has given the GOP an opening. "This could mean that Republicans can better address their gender gap than the Democrats," says Winston. "If Bush is close, just close, among women, he is going to win the election."
The soccer mom has been associated with much that was contemptible in our politics, especially soft-focus, meaningless policies like that old Clinton soccer-mom sop, his promotion of the so-called "V-chip," which was supposed to protect America's children from untoward TV programming. Who knew that soccer moms were made of sterner stuff? In the 1990s, Zell Miller's rip-roaring Republican Convention speech would have frightened them away. But he couched his uncompromising call for a vigorous national-security policy in terms of protecting his family, and scored. In his new talk of terrorism as a threat to families and in his scorching anti-terror language, Kerry now seems to be doing his best to channel his inner Zell (if he has one).
Of course, other factors are influencing women's views of the candidates besides terror, and Kerry is underperforming among everyone at the moment. But it just might be that tough counterterrorism is the new V-chip. The old saying goes, "When momma ain't happy, nobody is happy." The same apparently applies when she's not feeling secure.