Clinton Has Woman Problems. No, It's Not What You Think

Bill Clinton likes to talk about the strong women in his life--his wife, mother, and grandmother. He has depended on another female source of strength as well: the woman voter. In 1992, Clinton won the Presidency by winning far more female support than did George Bush.

Since early in his Presidency, though, Clinton's approval ratings among women have slipped. White House political advisers worry even more about another phenomenon: Women, who vote more Democratic than men, stayed home in the 1994 congressional elections. Exit polls showed that 51% of 1994 voters were female, down from 54% in 1992.

Such slumping turnout--coupled with strong male support of Republicans--led to the GOP takeover of Congress. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake argues her party must now pay as much attention to these "ambivalent women" as to "angry white men." Says Lake: "In 1994, if women were as enthusiastic for Democrats as men were for Republicans, then Democrats would have won the House and Senate."

HIDDEN GAINS. Anti-Clinton sentiment was a big reason for this lethargy, and the White House is working on a pitch it hopes will energize females in time for 1996. Clintonites say that battles over deficit reduction and trade masked such gains as new money for breast-cancer research. "We didn't spend enough time reinforcing a message that resonates with women," says White House aide Alexis M. Herman.

One target: women who are telling pollsters that Clinton didn't keep his promise to help them in their struggles to raise their families. The polls say the failure of health-care reform angered women more than it did men. Also, women are more pessimistic about the economy. While men focus on taxes and the deficit, women worry about jobs and income stagnation, surveys show.

So, the White House is trying to appeal to struggling women. Clinton talks about the burdens families carry and how his proposed child tax credits and job-training grants will help. He has proposed a minimum-wage hike, noting that two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women. And he hopes attacks on the GOP for "heartlessness" in attempts to overhaul welfare and child-nutrition programs will strike a chord with females.

The strategy may be paying off. Clinton's ratings among women have turned up recently. Aides hope he'll win more points by fighting for Surgeon General nominee Henry Foster, who's under GOP fire for doing abortions. The White House even sees a silver lining in the affirmative action debate. Polls show such programs are more popular with voters overall when they're seen to be helping women rather than minorities. And, says White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes: "What's been overlooked in the debate is how strongly women feel about affirmative action."

Yet while affirmative action may be popular with Clinton's strongest supporters--college-educated women--it holds little sway over female swing voters, homemakers and non-college-educated women. Clintonites think they too can be won over. Perhaps. But if he can't shore up the constituency that won for him in 1992, his hopes for 1996 could be dashed.

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