The New Security Moms
Why we might see a renewed focus on this constituency of voters
The soccer mom.
“In the 1990s, Bill Clinton successfully wooed the soccer mom, convincing the caring, responsible but comfortable suburbanite that there was room for compassion in politics as long as the books were balanced. Al Gore picked up the ball and continued to run with it, scoring an 11-point advantage over Bush among women voters in 2000 - thanks largely to overwhelming support from single and ethnic minority women.” (The Guardian)
But then, 9/11/2001 happened. The increasing salience of the threat of terrorism gave rise to a new demographic of women voters.
The “Security Mom”
Coincidentally, it was then-Senator Joe Biden who helped coin the term security mom: “soccer moms are security moms now.” Biden made this declaration because in the 2002 midterms, the lead Democrats had taken with women voters disappeared. After the worst terrorist attack in history on US soil, more women felt the GOP could keep America safe. Thus, the security mom became a key, contested demographic: a woman who had a family to protect from dangerous threats like terrorism and someone who placed national security as a top concern. In the 2004 election between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, security moms were an important constituency that gave George W. Bush an upper-hand in that contest. This article from the NYT in 2004 provides a good example of how this constituency was centered in that campaign. In particular, this quote caught my eye: “‘Security moms’ are an outgrowth of the ‘soccer moms’ who had emerged in previous elections as important swing voters. But soccer moms tended to live mainly in the suburbs and could vote either way. Security moms live everywhere and are leaning Republican.”
Since 2004, there’s been much written on security moms because they’ve been perceived as not only a real constituency, but also a constituency with power and with the ability to swing an election. You can see it throughout the media since 2002 — many articles have been written about the “rise of the security mom” for the GOP to hold on to and for the Democrats to figure out.
Importantly, I want to cite this particular study from 2007 where two scholars found that yes, women who are moms vote differently than women who are not moms, but the key finding is that they’re different not because of security concerns, but because of social welfare concerns. In a world that wasn’t temporally far-removed from 9/11, national security was an extremely pervasive policy and social issue whereby moms felt that the safety of their kids was greatly at risk; that their ability to live well was at stake, somewhat along the lines of the types of feelings, values, and outcomes we’d attribute to social welfare policies. Women were concerned for the welfare of their children.
November’s election: the prodigal security mom returns?
This brings me to today. Recently on our podcast Wear We Are, we looked at a particularly surprising poll from Morning Consult for this upcoming November midterm election: which party has handled Covid better overall?
We were surprised because Democrats have held the White House for long enough for the buck to stop with them on the handling of COVID. But on the podcast, I mused aloud that in a time when we are in a national security vacuum — the threat of terrorism on our shores has faded in national discourse, and our armed forces are not the primary military force in a major war — what issues are replacing this vacuum for security moms?
I’d argue that COVID is one of them. While we have plenty of evidence that the GOP can absolutely appeal to security moms who never wanted school shutdowns, masks, or vaccines (sometimes all three), the polling above makes me wonder how each party could seize on this particular voter constituency during a time of calmer national security concerns. For Democrats, the poll is a positive sign that they might have a chance to win the security mom vote this November.
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What else might replace national security concerns?
So many social issues have been securitized or are in the middle of securitization, or even re-securitization. What I mean by that is taking an issue that generally falls outside of any kind of security paradigm (education, abortion, social safety net policies, the economy, etc.) and giving it a framework and some rhetorical oompf to fall under a security paradigm more comfortably. When kids are increasingly at risk of becoming a victim of a mass shooting at school, the securitization of education is easy, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to think about protecting your kids from certain kinds of “agendas” or “biases” or “conspiracies” or “ideologies” let alone gun violence. Thus, this issue of education: how kids are protected in the classroom — physically, mentally, emotionally — is a huge opening for both parties.
Democracy and election integrity is another issue that we know is replacing more traditional (i.e. foreign) national security issues. Securitizing or protecting democracy is not a new political move, but it feels fresh in the US because conversations about threats to our own democracy haven’t really existed in recent modern history. President Biden’s recent speech on safeguarding American democracy and labeling MAGA Republican candidates as threats will go far with trying to attract security moms, as well as placing an emphasis on safeguarding Americans from “homegrown” domestic terrorism. For the GOP, election integrity for some parts of the party is the name of the game for attracting security moms and convincing them that elections are being stolen and therefore our ability to elect who we want is under attack.
We’ve already seen the playbook for abortion from the Democrats since the Dobbs decision earlier this summer. Security moms come into play, as I said on the podcast, when Democrats appeal to the danger of pregnancy and of women (and their daughters) not having “bodily autonomy.” We’ve already seen polling that shows Dobbs is a huge factor in that decision-making. This is part of a larger play for security moms, and I think it’s possible that the play becomes even more explicit over the next two months before Election Day.
Climate change is another huge issue that Democrats can seize an opportunity to attract the security mom vote this November and into 2024. With unprecedented floods in Pakistan, a destructive and surprising heatwave in Europe, continuing droughts across the world, threatened power grids in the US (to name a few) — the stories about how climate change is no longer just an “existential threat” are here. The consequences of climate change are moving more rapidly from the future to the present.
What Republicans understood in the early part of this century is that women could be appealed to not just by their individual self-interest, but as relational beings. This is, perhaps, especially true for mothers. We have seen the success this kind of appeal can have, and I think it carries on through politicians like Glenn Youngkin who successfully appealed to parents as a conservative in Virginia.
Democrats have every ability to meet moms where they are, and I see that developing in these midterms. While I have concerns about a politics that preys on voters’ fears, appealing to security moms need not amount to overwrought fear mongering. The fact is that there are significant challenges facing American families right now, and it’s reasonable for “security moms,” and really anyone else, to look for candidates and a party that seem most prepared to meet those challenges. If parties had a healthier vision of what any mom could possibly want and value for their own children and children in their communities, issues like poverty, then, could take center stage.
But of course, we see our politics will often if not always seek to use whatever tactic it can to prey on our individual and collective fears. In this newsletter, we frequently try to be on the forefront of where the next big focus will be in American politics, and I think the new “security mom” will play a critical role. Republicans have long been attentive to cultivating this constituency. Democrats have the opportunity to contest their claim on this constituency in a couple months.