KERRY'S GENDER GAP
Yes, Democrats Can Win (Some) White Male Voters
By RICK LYMAN
Published: May 23, 2004
POOR John Kerry. Despite President Bush's dip in popularity, Mr. Kerry hasn't made any real headway, according to the polls.
Part of the problem is his lack of support among white men. Mr. Kerry has the support of only 36 percent of white male voters, compared with 55 for the president, according to the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll, taken last month.
To win the presidency, Mr. Kerry won't need a majority of white male votes. No Democratic presidential candidate has managed to do that since Jimmy Carter in 1976, because of the party's perceived weak-kneed stance on military matters. But Mr. Kerry will almost certainly need to do better among white men than Al Gore did in 2000, when 36 percent voted for the Democratic nominee compared with 60 percent for Mr. Bush.
Yet if Mr. Kerry tries to woo the testosterone crowd, he risks losing support from the party's base, including women and minorities, said John B. Judis, co-author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority" and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Dick Morris, the political strategist who advised President Bill Clinton and now works for Republicans, said if Mr. Kerry makes a serious play for this white male demographic, he could push his party's more liberal base into Ralph Nader's arms.
"This is like a first baseman who fields a throw from the third baseman, but in the course is pulled off the bag," Mr. Morris said.
So what's a candidate to do?
Up to now, Mr. Kerry has relied on cosmetic changes. When Republicans accused him of being aloof, liberal and, worst of all, looking French, he conspicuously peppered his speeches with terms like "fight" and "strength" and, of course, "bring it on."
Almost all of his television ads have emphasized his Vietnam War record. Veterans greet him at every campaign stop. He rode a motorcycle onto "The Tonight Show," and made sure to be photographed hunting.
"The only thing he hasn't done is sit down with a six-pack and chew tobacco with them," said Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist and Mr. Gore's campaign manager in 2000.
Still, campaign strategists from both parties agreed that there are other, better ways of appealing to white men, without turning off everyone else. And they offered plenty of advice - some serious, some not - on what he could do to rev up those white male votes.
Be very, very careful about Iraq.
Recent poll numbers show that Americans - including white men - are losing faith in the president's handling of the conflict. But white men, more than other demographic groups, tend to rally around a sitting president at a time of war, said Jeffrey Bell, a longtime Republican strategist.
"The indications are from history that when Americans are in the middle of a war, domestic considerations don't play that much of a role in elections," Mr. Bell said.
Recently, Mr. Kerry has played to his base. He has been more outspoken about the Iraq war, and he met last week with Ralph Nader.
Predictably, the Bush campaign has pounced, announcing that it will soon unveil television ads taking Mr. Kerry to task for "politicizing" the war by criticizing the president's handling of it.
Divide and conquer.
Iraq may be issue No. 1, but white men are susceptible to a populist message.
"White males, especially working class males, care about their jobs, and they care about things like health care," Ms. Brazile said. By stressing those issues, she said, Mr. Kerry might lure away those white male voters who feel badly treated by the Bush economic plan.
Take President Bush's tax cuts. "Rescinding tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 is very popular in this white male demographic," said Ruy Teixeira, co-author of "America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters" and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
"Health care costs are a huge issue for these people," he said. "Kerry needs to emphasize toughness and talk about strengthening the military, but also stress these other, Democratic issues."
Don't miss "SportsCenter."
It was no coincidence that the Bush campaign's first advertising blitz was on male-oriented television channels like ESPN, said Ms. Brazile. "Republicans consider white males to be their stronghold, so they pay very close attention to this base," Ms. Brazile said. "They fertilize it, they season it, they do everything they can to make sure their base doesn't move."
To be competitive, she said, the Kerry campaign must aggressively court this sports channel audience. "I wouldn't say park your campaign bus at Nascar events," Ms. Brazile said. "But don't drive past those events, either."
Don't overplay your war hero résumé.
"The war hero thing is always there, but if you keep talking about it people begin to get the idea that you don't have anything else to offer," said Lyn Nofziger, who was an aide to President Ronald Reagan.
The best idea, he said, is to let the manly symbols speak for themselves. "What he's really trying to do is what Naomi Wolf tried with Al Gore in 2000, convince us all that he's an alpha male," Mr. Nofziger said, speaking of the feminist writer who advised the candidate. "It's better just to be yourself, otherwise you come across as a phony."
The Bush campaign slogan is "Steady Leadership in Times of Change." And Republicans have seized every opportunity to portray Mr. Kerry as a typical, blow-with-the-wind politician, the stock gag for editorial cartoonists.
Traditionally, this approach plays well, particularly, though not solely, with white men, Mr. Nofziger said.
"I would advise Kerry to find a principle and stick to it," he said. "Don't try to make everybody happy. He doesn't need everybody. He doesn't need all the white males. He just needs enough so he ends up with one more electoral vote than George Bush."
Take every opportunity to make President Bush seem less manly.
If Republicans can make insinuations about Mr. Kerry's manliness, and go so far as to call him French, then turnabout is fair play, said Mark Katz, a humorist who served as a speechwriter for President Clinton. Remember, he said, when President Bush showed up with a bandage on his head after he collapsed while watching television and eating pretzels?
"My proposal is that the Kerry campaign run a 30-second ad which is nothing but John Kerry sitting on a couch and eating pretzels without involving paramedics at all," Mr. Katz said. "Guys can't help but be impressed by that, if he can get to the bottom of a bag of pretzels without someone having to call an ambulance."