Aligning Mars and Venus

Posted: Sep 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Which presidential candidate most appeals to the women? Four years ago, Al Gore thought he could expand his appeal to women with "earth tones" and getting in closer touch with his "feminine side." It didn't work.

For four years we've watched George W. swagger and now he tells us that's simply how they "walk" in Texas. His greatest asset in wooing women is his wife, whose natural grace speaks well for the man she married.

Women have been emancipated too long to be wooed by sexy superficialities. But there's something at work under the radar called the masculinity factor. George W. in his cowboy boots and Texas drawl is much more the natural man that appeals to feminine instincts. John Kerry, fastidiously coiffed in understated designer togs, is the contemporary metrosexual, looking as if he gives a good deal of attention and money to the way he looks. But how these images play into the gender gap is hard to calculate.

Kerry is an accomplished sportsman and a hunter, but exploiting those qualities seems to have given him an unexpected bump in the chin, like the kick from a Remington Model 870 pump-action shotgun. Late night comics ridiculed his windsurfing as merely trying to see which way the wind is blowing. When he appreciatively waved a hunting gun in the air for photo-ops, manly men observed that the gun was banned by legislation that he had sponsored in the Senate. Poor John. He simply doesn't look comfortable in his macho skin.

The Kerry handlers, desperately searching for signs of a rainbow, have begun to treat him as though he were all three of Dorothy's companions in "The Wizard of Oz" - Tin Man, who needs a heart, Cowardly Lion searching for courage and Scarecrow in pursuit of a brain. Dorothy, alas, is nowhere to be seen, and neither is the Yellow Brick Road.

Conventional wisdom dictates that more women will vote for the Democratic candidate, more men for the Republican. The numbers could determine the election. Immediately after 9/11, polls showed little difference in the way that both men and women rallied behind the president, but those numbers have swung back to the conventional formulation, though by narrower margins.

Four years ago, George Bush reduced the predicted gender gap by appealing to suburban women who liked his ideas for reform of the schools. This year the soccer mom has morphed into "security mom," whose major concern is the safety of her children. When it comes to appreciating leadership in the war against terrorism, large majorities of men and women prefer the president over John Kerry - war heroics, wind surfing and illegal gun or not.

Many other gender factors can come into play this year. Women may be from Venus and men from Mars, but how they vote depends on the way their planets are in alignment. Marriage influences ballot choices. A majority of married women, for example, say they'll vote for President Bush and a majority of unmarried women say John Kerry is their man, according to published polls, continuing the recent trend that more married women with children vote Republican than Democratic. Now there's another problem for the senator. In the year 2000, 68 percent of married women actually voted and 52 of unmarried went to the ballot box. (It's the Nuptial Gap, stupid.)

At their convention in New York, Republican delegates carried orange signs saying "W stands for women," and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake acknowledges that "George W. Bush is literally the best Republican we've seen at targeting women voters."

The president offers substance by detailing what he means by "empowerment" and the "opportunity society," which ought to appeal to both married women, mothers and unmarried women who work. "Flex time" is about giving women opportunities to trade overtime in for time off. Tax cuts benefit women, too.

The Independent Women's Forum exposes the myth behind feminist rhetoric against tax cuts. "Women should oppose feminists' implicit assumption that women are better off when government has more and individuals have less," writes Carrie Lukas, the forum's policy director. "After all, surrendering resources is tantamount to surrendering independence."

Cutting income taxes reduces the government's burden on women (and their husbands) and offers more freedom to mothers to choose whether to work or stay home. Women - single and married - are increasingly investing in and working for small businesses and tax cuts help them expand their opportunities, income, independence and choices.

What do women want? Security most of all, and a president who can best keep Venus and Mars in alignment.