Focus Groups Provide Insights Into Women's Views

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Washington Post convened two focus group conversations Wednesday in Fairfax County to discuss the Virginia governor's race. Each group included about a dozen women who consider themselves political independents, one with mainly undecided voters and those leaning toward R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate, the other with a mix of undecided and those tilting toward Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican. The women were recruited by Metro Research Services of Virginia and compensated for their time in keeping with standard practices for this type of research. Participants ranged in age from 21 to 66 and came from across Northern Virginia and from a variety of backgrounds. Discussions were moderated by Washington Post pollsters. Highlights of the women's comments about McDonnell's graduate school thesis, the candidates and the campaign are below.


In both groups, many participants expressed deep misgivings about the views McDonnell offered in his 1989 graduate school thesis, in which he wrote that feminists and working mothers were "detrimental" to the family. The poll found that for many, the thesis will not be a deciding factor in their vote, but most Virginia women disagree with the thesis's policy ideas concerning women and gay people.

In the focus groups, many of the Deeds-leaning voters considered the thesis a deal-breaker, a glimpse into what they said they thought were McDonnell's "core" beliefs -- ones that disqualified him for public office.

Sally Amster, 59, of Annandale said: "I couldn't vote for someone who espouses his views. It's just too scary, what he would do."

Among those leaning toward McDonnell, however, some took a more nuanced view, allowing for the possibility that McDonnell could have changed his mind in the intervening 20 years or that his personal convictions would not interfere with his governing. Others said he merely used overly strong language to bolster reasonable positions. Nevertheless, most were troubled by some aspect of what they had heard about the paper.

Ashli Suprise, 22, of Bristow said she would be watching for evidence that McDonnell's views had changed or grown more "mature" so he can "actually help the state rather than just start implementing . . . his ideas."

Some voters attributed the attitudes espoused in the 93-page document to McDonnell's Catholic faith and concluded that those were personal beliefs not necessarily indicative of the way he would govern. Others faulted Deeds for using the thesis repeatedly in his political ads, calling the constant attention a "smear."

Carol W. Beemer, 66, of Manassas said actions speak louder than words: "I don't care what you say you believe. What's your voting record? And I haven't seen that so far for either" candidate.

But Jacqueline Watts, 48, of Woodbridge, a Deeds-leaning voter who considers herself a centrist, said the thesis didn't concern her as much as the evidence that McDonnell pursued some of the goals it outlined. "I've written extreme things [in] papers, just to get a rise out of the instructor," she said. "But after finding that he was actually following through on it -- now, that was the thing" that gave her pause.


Participants varied greatly in the depth of information they had about the governor's race and the candidates.

For some of the Democratic-leaning voters, McDonnell's thesis was all they needed to know about the Republican candidate.

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