Soccer Mom Nonsense

Politics and policy.
Oct. 12 1996 3:30 AM

Soccer Mom Nonsense

The making of this year's election myth.

Soccer, when I was growing up in the '70s, was a still an esoteric sport. To find matches, we of the Menomenee Boys Club had to travel a long way from the genteel precincts of the North Side of Chicago. Generally, our opponents came from ethnic enclaves in the distant suburbs. On almost a weekly basis, we were humiliated by teams of Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian extraction whose members had been playing since just after birth. Their mothers, who surrounded the field, terrified our mothers by abusing the referees in thick Slavic accents. We believed they locked their boys in the sausage shed as punishment for missing shots.

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The social complexion of the game has changed. No longer a mere bridge between limousine liberals and the once-captive nations, soccer has become as mainstream as Little League baseball. Indeed, the sport is now so populist that in the opinion of all the experts, it is "soccer moms" who will determine the outcome of next month's election. According to a lead story in the New York Times, published the day of the first presidential debate, soccer moms have become "the most sought-after voters of the campaign season." Following the debate, the buzz on NBC was all about this emergent group and how the candidates had tried to woo it. The idea is that while most other demographic segments are largely committed, soccer moms make up a volatile, and hence crucial, constituency.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg
Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.

Who exactly, we must ask, are these soccer moms who hold the nation's fate in their hands? "They can be found," a CNN correspondent informs us, "shuttling the kids to practice in minivans, nervously pacing the sidelines, juggling the demands of family and career." Well naturally, but what sort of women take their kids to soccer practice? According to one South Carolina paper, soccer mom is "a well-heeled super-parent whose primary mission in life is to do too much for her children. She got on a waiting list early for the right day-care center, sent junior to Montessori, started violin lessons at 5, private school the same year and, the next year--soccer." According to the RockyMountainNews, however, soccer mom is "financially stressed." Opinion is similarly divided on her employment status. In the view of the ClevelandPlainDealer, soccer mom is a career woman who has "temporarily taken up child rearing." According to the BuffaloNews, however, she is "balancing the demands of work and family." The consensus seems to be that soccer moms are some subset of middle-class, white suburban women. They "care about their kids" (as opposed, presumably, to urban "rap moms" who do not), and they are incredibly busy. If you can't find a soccer mom for your story, don't worry. Part of the shtick is that she hasn't got time to talk to reporters.

Nexis, the journalist's friend, allows us to trace the historical evolution of the term. The first reference to a "soccer mom" that turns up is from 1982, and involves the tawdry tale of a Ludlow, Mass., man who absconded with $3,150 raised for the benefit of a local soccer league. There's very little more until a Susan Smith-type tragedy in 1991, when a soccer mom in California got so stressed out that she shot her two daughters and then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself. The application of the term to politics goes back only to last year, when a Democratic candidate for the Denver City Council last year described herself as a soccer mom--and won. Credit for this year's coinage apparently goes to Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who made ads for Phil Gramm during the primaries and now works for Bob Dole. (See a sample of his work in this week's Varnish Remover.) "The working soccer mom is the swing voter of this election," Castellanos told the WallStreetJournal, back before the Dole campaign signed him up full time. "And she is not going to trust a guy who argues for the need to own an assault weapon. She'll trust a guy who can feel her pain."

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I f the phrase "soccer moms" has rapidly become part of the political lexicon, it may be because it is cleverly positioned at the intersection of several different trends--the rise of soccer as a middle-class pastime, the demanding lives of working women, the diversification of the suburbs, the popularity of the Dodge Caravan, and so on. Yet there is something intrinsically misleading about the category, and indeed about all such categories. The outcome of the 1994 congressional election was supposedly determined by the media's ideal voter of that year, the Angry White Male, who loved guns and beer while hating government and liberals. What, one wonders, happened to Angry White Male? Did he die in a hunting accident? Did he go on Prozac? What about the Perot voters of 1992, who are, by definition, the largest swing-voting block in the country? Why aren't they deciding the election? The notion that there is a single demographic group that determines each election, then recedes back into the anonymity of the general populace, is useful for political consultants and reporters. But as the impermanence of such categories suggests, they are usually clichés that obscure as much as they reveal.

"The soccer mom is this year's hula hoop," says Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. Hickman points out that married women in general tend to be very pro-incumbent, which somewhat undermines the argument that voting for Bush in 1992 and Clinton in '96 represents some sort of tectonic shift. But even in 1992, married women split 40-40-20 for Clinton, Bush, and Perot respectively. In Hickman's view, the soccer mom segment is either "a group that's so small as to be meaningless or so large that differences between them are more important than similarities among them." Narrowly defined as married, college-educated, suburban women with school-age children, soccer moms constitute only 4 percent or 5 percent of the electorate. Broadly defined as suburban white women with school-age kids, they add up to 11 percent or 12 percent. But then, as Hickman points out, that 12 percent covers both working-class women who live in two-bedroom ramblers and professionals in Westchester County with inherited wealth. As voters, these women have little in common from election to election.

Of course both these groups--the Roseannes and the Murphy Browns, you might say--are currently leaning heavily for Clinton. The gender gap has turned into a gorge this year, with women in all categories favoring the president by a 26-point margin, according to the most recent NBC/WallStreetJournal poll. Among soccer moms--this is actually a category in the poll--Clinton is ahead by 29 percentage points. If the election were very close, such a bulge might make a difference. But as Guy Molineaux of Hart Research points out, "This year the gender gap has gotten to the point where all groups are trending Democratic--soccer moms, bowling moms, you name it." Molineaux also points out that in polling, it is a truism that higher up the socioeconomic ladder, women tend to vote more differently from their husbands. So it's hardly a surprise that soccer moms are somewhat more pro-Clinton than bowling moms.

Another pollster, Mark Mellman, points out that the big swing between Clinton's victory in 1992 and the Republican triumph of 1994 was among men, not women. And the same seems to be true of the swing back toward the Democrats this year. Soccer moms, whoever and however many they are, are less flighty--and thus less crucial to the election--than their husbands.

This year's conception of the crucial swing voter, in other words, seems especially muddled and misleading. But it doesn't matter much. By the next election season some other cliché will have emerged, and we won't have soccer moms to kick around anymore.

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