White House Wannabes: Wooing Minivan Moms

Politicians think they could be the key to Election 2000

Almost any politician could win Maryann R. Gallagher's vote with this promise: more hours in the day. Every morning at 6 a.m., the Vienna (Va.) mother of three flies out the door and into her Plymouth Voyager for the 30-minute, jam-packed commute to her job reviewing vaccine advertising material for the Food & Drug Administration. At 3:30 p.m., she's back in the left lane of Washington's Beltway, doing 70 mph to race home in time to take her daughter to soccer.

Gallagher, 49, then speeds off to the market, whips together dinner, and picks up her children if her husband, Frank, can't get away from his job as a manager at GEICO Corp. After dinner, she'll start the laundry and field calls as a school fund-raiser. If any of her kids has trouble with his or her braces, she says she feels like a "crazy woman." As if that's not enough, she frequently drives to Pennsylvania to visit her aging mother, worrying along the way about college and nursing-home costs.

Sound familiar? Chances are you know someone just like this. And politicians from both sides of the aisle have these millions of Maryann Gallaghers and their frazzled lives on their Election 2000 radar, aware that they could very well be a deciding factor. Call them the "Minivan Moms," the college-educated women who commute to work from their suburban homes. Like Gallagher, they were often Democrats in their youth but have grown more conservative as their focus has switched to schools and their children's values. They're slightly grayer and a little more tired than the Soccer Moms of 1996, but they share a major trait: While suburban men are a likely GOP vote, these women are politically independent now--the precious "swing voters" both parties covet.

In 1992, President Clinton sailed into the White House by tapping into the financial insecurities of recession-weary voters. By promising family leave and increases in education funding, he became the first Democratic Presidential candidate to capture the suburbs in nearly 30 years. Today, as anxiety over job security and eroding wages recedes, Presidential candidates are starting to focus on another kind of middle-class squeeze: the quality-of-life issues that time-famished, two-earner households face as they struggle to balance work and family.

As they try to define a new set of middle-class needs, Presidential contenders from Vice-President Al Gore to publisher Steve Forbes are talking about the family time crunch. Today's middle-income parents are working about 260 more hours a year than they did a decade ago, according to the Economic Policy Institute. With time at a premium, messages relating to family life and "livability" are popping up on both parties' political agendas.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree there is a problem, but their solutions differ. Democrats are looking to government to ease the burden. Gore, for instance, is offering up a basketful of options, from an expansion of federal family-leave policies to programs to ease rush-hour traffic jams and suburban sprawl. Democratic rival Bill Bradley also intends to make the issue a central one in his campaign, but aides say he has not yet developed a specific agenda.

Republicans are divided. Most GOP leaders reflexively oppose new government programs or business mandates. Front-runner Texas Governor George W. Bush is stressing broad tax relief that he says will give families greater choice in structuring their schedules because the restored income will help them to cut back hours. But some of his GOP brethren question that approach. GOP pollster Christine M. Matthews thinks Republicans risk looking as if they are ignoring the stresses of middle-class life if they don't come up with some specifically targeted ideas. "The Democrats are way ahead of us on this," she warns.

STRESSED OUT. That's not good news for Republicans. Suburban moms are feeling increasingly stressed. A survey last year by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake found that two-thirds of workers felt time pressures on working families were getting worse, and that three-fourths believed the government should do more (table). Lake says that June, 1999, polls, yet to be published, found that families felt the work-life squeeze even more intensely.

Lake also found that suburban men with young children increasingly are responding the same way as working women when polled about time-crunch issues--another worry for Republicans who have previously had a lock on suburban men. And Lake notes a merging of concerns among all suburban women. While six to eight years ago, lower-income women said they would have preferred extra money over extra time, they're now saying they want the extra time--just like college-educated women.

Now, politicians of every persuasion want to prove that they feel these women's pain. First out of the gate is Gore. As he attempts to recreate Clinton's suburban success, Gore is honing a message designed to appeal to the harried middle class. And he's feeling some political urgency. Despite the historical gender gap that favors Democrats, polls indicate that women prefer Republicans Bush and former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole over Gore in hypothetical general-election match-ups. Independent women voters, in particular, tell pollsters that they want a change in the White House after years of Clinton Administration scandals. And Bush has a big lead over Gore when asked who would do a better job in protecting families.

Gore strategists are frustrated that his message isn't resonating, even though Gore has been holding annual powwows in Tennessee where he brings together work-family gurus to brainstorm new initiatives. Leading his family agenda is an expansion of the Family & Medical Leave Act to cover parent-teacher visits and routine medical appointments. He also wants to extend the law to small business. And he's pushing for a big infusion of afterschool-care funding. The White House also has proposed money to train child-care workers.

Gore's most obvious play for the time-pressed family is his cri de guerre against suburban sprawl. Traffic congestion eats into family time "so that a commuting parent often gets home too late to read a child a bedtime story," he laments. As part of his "livable communities" agenda, Gore is proposing more money for mass transit and mortgage subsidies for people who buy homes near it, an end to federal incentives that encourage new development, and new grants to states to preserve open space and farmland.

Critics joke that Gore is so focused on the small stuff, he could be running for national zoning commissioner. But his emphasis on family and work is one way to gain a foothold in the moral-values debate, where Republicans lead in polls, says William Galston, a University of Maryland professor who advises Gore. He adds that the GOP's Religious Right risks turning off these voters when they equate moral values with such issues as school prayer and abortion.

"TONE-DEAF." What's more, Gore's ability to offer up a grab bag of micro-programs puts Republicans in a bind because of their philosophical opposition to them. "As good Republicans, we simply don't believe it's the job of the Commander-in-Chief to worry about commute time," says Republican pollster William McInturff, who is advising Senator John McCain's Presidential campaign. "As a consequence, Republicans occasionally seem tone-deaf. Any time you raise these issues, the Democrats can outbid you."

There's some common ground, though. To tap into growing concerns of two-earner families about finding ways to care for aging parents, the Vice-President and congressional Republicans are all talking up tax relief to help middle-income families pay for home-based elder care. And both Gore and Bush would like to see religious groups get federal funding to help with everything from Head Start to afterschool activities. This plank in Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda, say strategists, shows a more humane Republicanism that is reconnecting with the socially-tolerant suburbs.

Republicans also eschew the kind of government role favored by Gore. Forbes notes, for instance, that a Gore proposal to allow states to tap into their unemployment compensation funds to start paying for family leave could jeopardize the security of those funds. But advocates of the proposals argue that more than half of the state-run funds now have surpluses because of the tight labor markets.

Instead of government plans, Republicans are pushing massive tax relief, arguing that families know best how to use the money. A centerpiece of their $792 billion tax cut approved by Congress in August would reduce the "marriage penalty," which taxes many two-earner families at a higher rate than if they were singles filing separate returns. "A lot of these issues are best refereed inside of families and not by the government," says Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith, Bush's chief domestic policy adviser. "The broader the tax cut, the better it is for family policy."

That view finds strong support among the party's powerful Religious Right faction, many of whom would rather have women stay home with their children than work. Some Republicans say that extra money from tax cuts would let moms cut back on their working hours or stay at home. But moderate Representative Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, says such views are a relic of the Industrial Era. Although Davis, who represents the booming Washington suburbs of northern Virginia, agrees with the tax cut, he doesn't believe it will reverse the trend of women in the workplace. The views of party moralists, he says, "are not realistic and are dissonant with the emerging swing vote in America."

EASING BURDENS. Davis is among the growing number of GOP officials pushing for tax incentives to help meet the financial burdens of two-earner families, such as child-care costs. However, most Republican Presidential candidates aren't yet convinced they need to expend the same amount of political capital on these issues as the Democrats. The reason: Working moms make up only a small percentage of the GOP base. "In a Republican primary, the majority of voters are male, and the women tend to be pro-family traditionalists," says one party activist.

But expect Minivan Moms to become a bigger focus as the primary season shifts to the general campaign. Republican pollster Matthews, though, worries that may be too late. "The Democrats have identified an important and powerful message," she says. "Our leaders don't seem interested."

With demand at the grassroots building, it may be just a matter of time before the time squeeze is a common theme of the Presidential campaign. That means that parents like Maryann Gallagher, their pedal to the metal on the highways of America, could find themselves crucial players in the national political drama about to unfold.