The story of the 2004 election was in part a story of courting women. Throughout the campaign, news stories highlighted the candidates’ respective strategies for increasing their support among women. The democratic candidate — who has traditionally commanded a greater portion of women’s votes — had a strong lead among women at the launch of the campaign that evaporated by late summer. Rebuilding an edge among women was a critical focus of the Kerry campaign. Yet on Election Day, women gave Senator Kerry an estimated margin of three percentage points, less than Al Gore had received in 2000 and less than Senator Kerry needed to win.

Data on women’s attitudes collected during the course of the campaign provides important insight into the issues and messages that resonate with women. The Independent Women’s Forum sponsored a comprehensive psycho-linguistic communications analysis that included focus groups and a telephone survey (n=729) of likely women voters in seven key battleground states at the campaign’s beginning. The survey was designed not only to develop a better understanding of women’s attitudes toward particular candidates and issues, but also to examine how women respond to these issues and what messages resonate with women.

At the time of the IWF Swing State Survey, women said their top priorities were the economy and healthcare. Polls conducted through the course of the campaign revealed a significant shift in those priorities. By Election Day, terrorism and the situation in Iraq had become top issues for female voters, contributing to their increased support for the President.

The baseline data also showed that women in these swing states were generally not persuaded by the message of right-of-center candidates on core economic policy issues. For example, in the Swing State Survey, the conservative candidate was soundly defeated on the issues of healthcare and the economy. However, on both issues, the conservative candidate took a “moderate” position than strayed from traditional conservative ideals. The conservative candidate performed better on the “role of government” issue when the conservative presented a clear alternative to the liberal position, suggesting that conservative candidates may be best served by articulating free market/conservative principles rather than seeking to moderate core beliefs.

This information is critical not only for future candidates who will seek to win women’s votes, but for everyone involved in public policy. The Independent Women’s Forum supports the principles of limited government, free markets and personal responsibility. Building support for these ideals requires more than merely studying how their application in government improves policy outcomes and promotes prosperity. It also requires understanding how audiences evaluate and prioritize public policy issues. This analysis provides a window into the messages and issues that resonate with women and suggests tactics for enlisting their support for the policies that consistent with limited government, free markets and personal responsibility.