Swing voters have always been elusive creatures, changing shape from election to election. The profile and assumptions about them in one contest seldom apply to the next one. This axiom is proving true again with that most-talked-about slice of American political demography: the Soccer Mom. Since 9/11, polls suggest she has morphed into Security Mom--and that development is frightening to Democrats, who have come to count on women to win elections. She used to say she would never allow a gun in her house, but now she feels better if her airline pilot has one. She wanted a nuclear freeze in the 1980s and was a deficit hawk in the 1990s, but she now believes the Pentagon should have whatever it wants. Her civil liberties seem less important than they used to, especially compared with keeping her children safe. She's someone, in short, like Debbie Creighton, a 34-year-old Santee, Calif., mother of two who voted for Bill Clinton twice and used to choose the candidates who were most liberal on abortion and welfare. "Since 9/11," Creighton says, "all I want in a President is a person who is strong."
Listen to what these moms had to say last week, as Washington put the country on orange alert for the fourth time in a year. Jillian Kelly, a 43-year-old single mother and owner of a Chicago-area massage-therapy business, used to consider the Homeland Security Department "a joke." Now she's worried it isn't getting enough money. Netaya Anbar, a 45-year-old Pelham, N.Y., mother of three and still an avowed Democrat, worries about the erosion of civil liberties but at the same time recognizes that it could protect her family. "I'm very torn," she admitted. "Before 9/11, I would not have been." Nancy Potter, a 52-year-old teacher in Murfreesboro, Tenn., did not vote for George Bush and still thinks he stole the election from Al Gore. But when it comes to what the Administration has done against terrorism, she admits, "I think everything they've done is necessary. I absolutely support them in this." Adds Terri Brill, a 42-year-old mom from the Denver suburbs: "Personally, I think we need to close our borders; the threat is out there, it's coming after us, we need to protect ourselves."
The sea change in these women has already reshaped voting patterns. Their new attitude helps explain why the gender gap that had worked to the Democrats' advantage since Ronald Reagan was in office narrowed sharply in last fall's congressional elections. For the first time in more than a decade, the Republicans had near parity with women. President Bush's top political adviser Karl Rove believes a shift among women with children under 18 was a major factor in the G.O.P.'s historic victory in last year's midterms, in which the President became the first Republican in a century to see his party gain seats in an off-year election. "9/11 changed everything," says a senior Bush aide. "Everybody's more concerned. But what's driving the movement is women, especially women with children." And sure enough, because security trumped everything, these women voted Republican even though they continue to disagree with the party on many issues. As former President Clinton put it in a speech last December: "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right."