September 1999, Working Woman magazine
The working woman’s agenda
Since 1992, the Center for Policy Alternatives has compiled data for its Women’s Voices project, which tracks trends and issues important to female voters. In its most recent polling (conducted in 1996), the project reported that 83 percent of U.S. women respondents in a random telephone survey say they work full-time outside the home, and that two-thirds of working women say they earn half or more of their family’s income. Among women who work outside the home, 43 percent define themselves as career women. Most interesting is that, while a majority of these women identify themselves as Republican, the issues they care about—and the issues to which candidates who want their vote most speak—don’t break down along party lines. Working women are, in essence, emerging as a new voting bloc with an agenda all their own
“Career women’s top issue is education,” says Lake, whose firm, Lake Snell Perry & Associates, conducted some of the polling, as did American Viewpoint, the firm of Elizabeth Dole’s pollster, Linda DiVall. Though the issue is a natural for mothers, it’s not just their children’s education that concerns them, the pollsters found. Women see government support for education as the means to keep the economy healthy, as the way to ensure a viable labor force for their communities.
For Clinton, the issue is an easy one to trumpet; her party has always championed a federal government role in education. For Dole, who takes her party’s stance on limiting federal involvement in education, the issue demonstrates some of the tension between the working woman’s agenda and that of the traditional GOP voter.
“We actually polled on that,” Lake explains, “and we said, ‘Do you support a federal role in education?’ And the career women overwhelmingly said yes, by three to one.”
Entrepreneurial opportunities are also a key issue for this emerging voting bloc, says Mosle, whose Women’s Voices project found that four in 10 women either own their own businesses or would like to—and that event the 50 percent who aren’t headed down the entrepreneurial path believe government should do more to help small businesses get started. This is an area where Mosle sees an opening for a serious economic agenda that focuses not only access to capital and credit for women who are interested in starting businesses, but also on ways for women-owned businesses to tap into government procurement and contracting opportunities.
“Women are 53 percent of the electorate, 51 percent of the population, and, at the federal level, they get 2 percent of government contracts,” Mosle says. “There’s something out of whack there.”
Sufficient time for balancing family and work is another major concern for women, Lake adds. Until four years ago, she says, it was a priority mostly for career women; now all women rank time ahead of money in terms of what they need most for their families. Indeed, the 1996 Women’s Voices polling found that 80 percent of women would swap a job with more pay for one that offered time-oriented benefits: family leave, flexible hours, and help with child care. Again, there was only a slight difference between Democratic and Republican opinions.
Other priorities for women include the preservation of Medicare and Social Security, as well as new federal initiatives for health care, long-term income security and gun safety. Elizabeth Dole’s support for certain gun control measures—which ‘for a Republican candidate in a primary race is unheard of,” Mosle says—is clearly an attempt to reach out to women voters.
In a small multi-purpose room at the Bassett Health Care Center in Cooperstown, New York, some 200 members of the media are growing restless after waiting 45 minutes for the First Lady to commence her next wonk-a-thon. The reporters, photographers, and videographers far outnumber the 75 or so health care professionals assembled to join in on the listening. A dark-haired woman with an air of annoyance strides confidently through the sea of reporters, and a buzz kicks up throughout the room. “Mandy, how ‘bout a few words?” a reporter asks, resignedly, anticipating a look that says, “Not in this life.” His anticipation is rewarded.
Mandy Grunwald, 41, entered the national consciousness as one of Bill Clinton’s wunderkinder in the 1992 presidential race. She worked in the White House as a presidential adviser until 1995, when she left to work on other campaigns, such as the successful 1996 gubernatorial bid of Jeanne Shaheen, the first female to hold that job in New Hampshire. The daughter of Time magazine’s former managing editor, she grew up surrounded by A-list journalists and politicians. Today, she represents a new breed of career woman—the political professional.
Because she is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s media strategist and all-purpose political counselor, everyone wants a few words from Grunwald. But Mandy’s not talking. As her a question about Clinton’s policy positions for New York, and here’s what you get: “Well, I can’t talk about the future because she isn’t talking about it yet…She is listening to people; she’s not laying out an agenda. I can talk retrospectively about the kinds of issues she’s been involved with for 30 years.”
There’s little doubt among the scribes that this “listening” thing (in which the First Lady asserts no official positions for a campaign that at press time, isn’t yet a campaign) bears all the markings of a Grunwald/Clinton style “rollout,” a long tease of support-building for a controversial political personality.
Grunwald’s ascendancy in politics is mirrored by the growing number of female campaign professionals populating the political landscape—the women behind the women and men who seek to lead the nation. Just look at the presidential campaigns. Bill Bradley’s senior pollster and finance director are both women. Al Gore has appointed women to several key posts in his campaign: deputy chair, chief of staff, and director of policy coordination. And George W. Bush’s deputy finance manager, chief foreign policy adviser, and political director are all women.
When Elizabeth Dole hired pollster and strategist Linda DiVall, she tapped the wisdom of a political pioneer. The 47-year-old founded American Viewpoint in1985, a time when women were just beginning to increase their political presence. As the first woman to start a polling firm for Republican candidates, she has often been a lonely voice, urging GOP leaders to acknowledge the importance of the female vote.
Despite the respect accorded her by such high-profile clients as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senator Fred Thompson, she’s endured taunts from the right. Chuck Cunningham, former national operations director of the Christian Coalition and now a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA), blasted Dole for hiring DiVall, whom he calls “the left’s favorite Republican pollster.”
But in Election 2000, DiVall may well get the last laugh. Not only Dole, but also frontrunner Bush, appear to be crafting heir campaign approaches around open policy memos penned by DiVall on how to close the gender gap. DiVall argues against espousing the GOP’s hot-button rhetoric that condemns abortion, the Department of Education, and gun control. It’s pronouncements like these, she contends, that give the party a reputation for intolerance and turn off women voters.
Dole’s approach is to depart from party dogma on selected issues such as gun control, while putting a positive spin on such conservative positions as local control of education and deregulation of business. Bush, who appears to be catering more to the party’s traditional male base, still includes in his speeches ways to make government contracts more available to small-business owners, and touts his record of improved education and health care in Texas. Both candidates soft-pedal their anti-abortion positions.
Already, Bush and Dole are polling better with women than Democratic frontrunner Al Gore, a fact that hasn’t escaped DiVall’s notice. (Celinda Lake doesn’t see Gore’s poor showing with women as a gender problem, though. She points out that he’s doing far worse among men.)
Says DiVall, “It certainly shows that Republicans, if they work hard and understand the women’s vote--in terms of both issues and communications, and the personality of the candidate--have a definite opportunity to maximize their vote with women. And that’s not something they should hide from.”