The Republican Party's strained relations with women voters took an interesting turn this weekend, with the appearance of President Reagan's chief political adviser, Edward J. Rollins, at the Republican Women's Leadership Conference in Indianapolis. Rollins made it official: He told the women that the "gender gap," could "swamp" the Republicans in the next election.
This is a little like reporting to the forest rangers that there are bears in Yellowstone Park. Betty Heitman, cochair of the Republican Party and organizer of the conference, and many other Republican women leaders have been trying to warn the White House that it was heading for disaster with women voters ever since the president fielded his first set of all-white male appointments.
Why, then, did Rollins take to this conference of Republican women a message they already knew? Who was he really trying to reach?
One of the key elements in the gender gap, an element that Rollins clearly recognizes, is that women are bringing different priorities to politics than men are. Issues of fairness, caring, who is being hurt by public policies and who is being helped are uppermost in the minds of enough women voters for them to consistently give the president an 8-to-10 point lower approval rating than men give him in the polls.
The polls show that this independent political thinking, which is producing a tendency among women to vote Democratic, is most prevalent in the 25-to-40 age group. It is closely linked to women's entrance into the work force and to the growing number of women who are single heads of households. These are women who have come of age during the renaissance of the feminist movement and have been exposed to numerous influences that encourage them to trust their own judgments.
There is no evidence to suggest that any of this is going to change. The problem for the Republicans is going to be further compounded by an enormous "get-out-the-vote" drive among women being coordinated by more than 40 women's organizations, ranging from the American Association of University Women to the national YWCA.
The gender gap has been the topic of White House meetings and memos for the past year, yet the administration has been unable to find ways of narrowing it. According to Republican polling, it is the economy and the arms race (with the economy now foremost) that is causing the gender gap, not the president's position on abortion and equal rights issues. Yet, despite efforts by the White House to emphasize its success in lowering the rate of inflation, for example, women are much less convinced than men that the economy is headed for recovery.
Faith Whittlesey, the president's public liaison, is in the White House camp that believes the gender gap will vanish along with the recession. Dee Jepson, his liaison to women's groups, is an antiabortion crusader who has been telling conservative women's groups that the gender gap is a "myth" and that most American women oppose ERA. The polls don't support their conclusions and their conclusions aren't going to support the president at the polls. The gender gap won't disappear with the recession. It will focus on something else that reflects concerns women feel strongly about, such as the arms race.
"It's fascinating," said Bobbie Greene Kilberg, vice chair of the women's policy board in the Reagan-Bush campaign, "to see a senior political adviser telling us the same thing we've been trying to tell them since the campaign. It's more than deja vu. Why, at this point, they would choose to confirm the facts, I don't know. But I'm pleased to see it. I's very important that a senior adviser is finally coming out and stating the dimension of the problem. It gives us some ammunition to use with those people who say there is no problem."
The most interesting explanation for the Rollins speech was that it was yet another move in the battle between rival factions in the White House for the president's mind. Rollins, to his credit, clearly understands that politics in America have changed, and that blacks, Hispanics and women are going to be casting decisive votes. The latest polls, he said, are showing that only 30 percent of the women would vote again for Reagan. He was obviously trying to tell somebody that the Grand Old Party has a great big problem.
And with numbers like that, somebody better listen.