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Voters Pat Evans, left, and Jason Milligan, along with his daughter Felice Milligan, 2, sit in the voting booth to fill out their ballots in Edmond, Okla., during the general election, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008.

Study: Mothers More Liberal, Fathers More Conservative on Social Issues

September 11, 2009 07:00 AM
by Liz Colville
A new study suggests that parenting has a polarizing effect on where men and women stand on social welfare issues.

Continuing a Trend, Parents at Odds in Last Election

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When it comes to important issues like education, health care and the Iraq war, men and women with children at home have starkly different takes, according to data from the 2008 presidential election, compiled in a study by Dr. Steven Greene of North Carolina State University (NCSU) and Dr. Laurel Elder of Hartwick College.

Using data from the American National Election Studies, Greene and Elder observed a noticeable trend in mothers with children in the home: They were “more liberal on social welfare attitudes, and attitudes about the Iraq War, than women without children at the home,” Greene told ScienceDaily. Taking into account Greene and Elder’s previous research, which has used data from 1980 onward, fathers have become more conservative, while mothers are “holding steady” in their liberal views.

In the new study, men with children still at home (parents with adult children were not part of the survey) were shown to vote more conservatively than men without kids, but they voted similarly to childless men on the Iraq war. In a 2007 paper by Elder and Greene, the authors showed that in the 2004 presidential election, fatherhood “appears to be of limited importance” when it comes to whether a man is conservative.

Greene notes that the women’s voting behaviors are in contrast to what he calls the ‘Security Mom’ image that the media portrayed of many American mothers—typified in the election campaign of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

“[D]espite media speculation that Sarah Palin, given her status as a self-proclaimed ‘Hockey Mom’ and working mother of five, would be effective at attracting the votes and admiration of parents, especially mothers, the research showed no evidence of a ‘Sarah Palin effect’ (between parents and non-parents), even when looking exclusively at Republicans,” Greene explained.

“It appears that the Democratic position, that government has a role in addressing social problems, appeals to women with children,” Greene concluded in a NCSU press release. “Whereas men with children are drawn to the Republican arguments that government should not play a major role on social welfare issues.”

Background: Family comes to play bigger role in politics

The Reagan era of 1980 to 1988 is credited with ushering in the Republican Party’s “family values” platform, which remains an important, though broad, tenet of the party today. The Republican platform of 1980, available for viewing on The American Presidency Project Web site, repeated its three priorities: “the family, the neighborhood, [and] the community.”

The platform also focused on women, saying, “The damage being done today to the family takes its greatest toll on the woman. Whether it be through divorce, widowhood, economic problems, or the suffering of children, the impact is greatest on women.” The platform emphasized values such as “the right to life for unborn children”; protecting small businesses and family farms; and, generally, protecting families’ rights from big government control.

The Democratic Party, while emphasizing the importance of family, stresses different values and is also broad in its definition. For instance, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, defined “family values” that specifically countered the Republican tradition. Kerry spoke of a tax cut for middle class families; universal health care; and working to keep American jobs from going overseas, among other issues.

As Ted Anthony wrote for the Associated Press during last year’s election season, the definition of “family” has become more fluid for the Republican Party since the 1980s and even the 1990s, when, in a famous 1992 speech, Republican Vice President Dan Quayle rejected the single motherhood of the title character in the CBS sitcom “Murphy Brown."

The progression was most apparent during the 2008 election campaign, when Mark Salter, considered the “closest adviser” to Republican presidential nominee John McCain, called Sarah Palin’s family “[a]n American family,” Anthony wrote. This effectively declared that Palin’s illegitimate grandchild was a moot issue for the McCain campaign and did not go against its platform.
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