The National Women's Political Caucus, the bipartisan organization formed to elect progressive women to public office, has released a survey that found that 57 percent of those polled believe a woman would do as well as or better than a man in the White House. The survey, it is worth noting, was conducted before the Iran-contra hearings.
The office of the presidency is the one toward which voters have been most willing, in previous polls, to express a sexual bias that might otherwise show up only in the voting booth. But the survey found that the majority of voters believe women would do as well as men or better than them in all levels of public office, including the highest.
"The popular perception is that there is an enormous amount of bias against women candidates," says Irene Natividad, head of the caucus. "What this poll reveals is that the majority of men and women are supportive of women running for office."
While the poll did disclose some continuing bias against women candidates, it did not appear to be nearly as pervasive as previously believed, she said. For example, 31 percent of those polled thought a woman would not do as well as a man in the White House, but "if someone had garnered 57 percent of the vote, they would win," Natividad said. "What is wrong with 57 percent support?"
The telephone poll of 1,502 registered voters in the continental United States was done between May 6 and June 1 by Hickman-Maslin Research Inc. and American Viewpoint Inc. under a grant from R.J.R. Nabisco.
Voters did, however, see differences in the areas of strength between male and female candidates, and certain traditional sexual stereotypes continue to prevail. For example, significant pluralities of those polled believe male candidates are better at handling "technical" issues such as foreign trade, military spending, agriculture, arms control, taxes and the budget.
Women candidates were seen as stronger in dealing with day care, poverty, health care costs, education, civil rights, drug abuse, environmental issues and restraining government spending. The last has repeatedly shown up in polls as being one of the most significant issues on voters' minds. The survey found that men and women generally agree on these stereotypes -- although men expressed an extremely strong belief that men are significantly better than women at handling the "technical" issues.
That perception could be known, hereinafter, as the "Yes, but could Rep. Pat Schroeder sit down and deal with Gorbachev?" That was the comment of a male phone caller the day a column appeared about the Colorado congresswoman's explorations of a run for the presidency. The next logical question, of course, is, "Can President Reagan?"
Substantial majorities of the voters preferred candidates who are identified with progressive positions on women's rights and who are endorsed by progressive women's organizations. Voters who believe a woman should be able to have an abortion outweighed by 2 to 1 those who were opposed.
The Democratic Party has a definite edge among women voters, a significant factor because women constituted a plurality of the voters in the last election. The women polled said they had favored Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans in 1986, and planned to vote that way again in 1988. Men agreed by slightly narrower margins.
There is some bad news, however, for incumbents, which is worth remembering in light of the fact that a record number of new members were elected to Congress after the Watergate scandal. Twenty percent of those polled said they would be more likely to support somebody already in office, but 34 percent said they would be more likely to support someone who thinks new blood is needed. The rest didn't know or didn't care.
Some of the most striking findings of the survey were differences among women. Women candidates are more heavily supported by a base coalition of young voters, minorities, never marrieds, Catholics, urban residents, higher-educated workers and white-collar workers -- and particularly heavily supported by women in these groups.
Women candidates are going to have a harder time getting support from voters over age 60, those who live in small towns and rural areas, homemakers, voters in lower white-collar and blue-collar occupations and voters in the South.
These findings can help women candidates and activists target voters and communities where they might do well. Overall, women who want more say in how the country is run can take heart: The good news would seem to be that the right wing's attempt to erode women's political standing hasn't taken hold.