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NOW President Kim Gandy Blasts Democrats

by Jo Freeman

"We don't need two Republican parties," NOW President Kim Gandy told roughly one thousand progressive Democrats at the fifth Take Back America conference held in Washington, D.C. June 1-3. She specifically blasted the Democratic party for waffling on a woman's right to choose an abortion.

Gandy criticized Cong. Lacy Clay (D. Mo) as a "longtime progressive [who] just changed his vote on a bill that endangers the lives of young women" in order, she quoted Lacy as saying, "to follow my church leadership."  She also faulted DNC Chairman Howard Dean for praising anti-abortion Democrats in Alabama, Sen. John Kerry (D. Mass) for urging  pro-lifers to run as Democrats, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D. NY) for recruiting an anti-abortion Democrat to run against a pro-choice woman.

Abortion has been a polarizing issue between the two major parties for thirty years.  Until the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized most abortions, it was not a partisan issue.  Votes in the states which were liberalizing their abortion laws prior to 1973 showed that Republicans were as divided as Democrats on this issue, and often more likely to vote to reduce the legal restrictions on when abortions could be performed.

Support for a woman's right to choose abortion has been in every national Democratic Party platform since 1980.  Republican Party platforms have opposed the right of women to make this choice in increasingly strident language since 1976.  Differences over abortion have caused voters and politicians to switch parties, and pushed Presidential candidates to switch positions.  President George Herbert Walker Bush was originally pro-choice, and Democrats Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson once opposed a woman's right to choose.

Since losing the 2004 election Democrats have been reassessing what were once litmus test issues in their search for a strategy to recapture the center of American politics.  One purpose of the progressive conference was to tell the Democratic Party that "flexibility" on key issues is not an option.  While women's rights and abortion were not major themes of that conference, progressives aren't waffling.

They are trying to convince the Democratic Party that the women's vote is still worth courting.  Republicans were gleeful and Democrats were shocked when women were only three percent more likely to vote for Kerry than Bush last November. This is the worst a Democratic Presidential candidate has done since 1988, when women were one percent more likely to vote for President Bush's father than for Michael Dukakis.

Because 2004 was a drastic change from the 2000 election, when twelve percent more women voted for Gore than for Bush, pollsters have focused on"current events" – specifically concerns about security – as the proximate cause.  These concerns disappear, and the gender gap reappears, when surveys ask voters to choose between "generic" Congressional candidates (i.e. not a specific person) of different parties.

One conference workshop in a series on mobilizing different voter groups asked which women should be mobilized and how.  The answer from three women representing Emily's List, the polling firm of Lake Snell Perry Mermin and Associates, and a new group calling itself Women's Voices Women Votes, was to concentrate on unmarried women.  Republicans have been saying for over a decade that there's a marriage gap, not a gender gap; Democrats are finally looking to exploit the difference that marriage makes in voting behavior.

The unmarried are now a majority of all households, a drastic change since 1960 when 80 percent of all households were headed by married couples. Of the unmarried who are 18 and over, 47 percent never married, 24 percent are divorced, 6 percent are separated, and 23 percent are widowed.  Of those under 45, 31 percent are mothers.

According to exit polls, unmarried women were 22.4 percent of the 118 million people who voted in 2004, up from 19 percent of 105 million voters in 2000.  This were as large a share of the 2004 electorate as African Americans, Latinos and Jews combined.  Kerry got 62 percent of their votes.  He received 53 percent of the votes of unmarried men, 44 percent of married women, and 30 percent of married men.

Unmarried women are 11 percent less likely to register, and if registered 16 percent less likely to vote, than married women. This makes them a potentially valuable target group with enough votes to swing a close election.

When separated out by gender and marital status, unmarried women are significantly more likely than the other three groups to favor Democrats and the progressive position on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.  Affordable health insurance and economic security are of greater concern to the unmarried than to the married.  "Security" is of less concern.

The panelists said that Get Out The Vote efforts targeted at unmarried women in the 2004 election were successful, and could be more successful in the future.  Because of their liberal leanings, bringing the electoral participation of the unmarried up to par with that of married women will increase the votes for progressive candidates.  In short, the women's vote is still important to elect Democrats, but it's the unmarried women's vote that can really make the difference in close elections.


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