Populist appeal to single women could turn Senate races, Democratic group says

Calling unmarried women an undermobilized electorate, Democracy Corps touts a populist message to close the gap against Republicans in 12 Senate battleground states, most of them traditionally conservative.

Michael Bonfigli / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Democracy Corps co-founder Stan Greenberg speaks with reporters at a Monitor Breakfast, hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, on July 23, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Look at the most competitive US Senate seats up for grabs in 2014, and you might be surprised that they are, in fact, competitive.

Of the 12 states in which there is so far no likely winner, eight are traditionally conservative. Mitt Romney won those states in 2012 – six by double digits.

But according to Democracy Corps, a political nonprofit formed by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg in 1999, their polling indicates that the Democratic candidates are not that far behind.

The group points to what it says is a spillover effect of the House GOP’s record-low favorability rating as the main reason that the Democratic Senate candidates in the 12 states are within striking distance.

And the group has advice for how the Democratic candidates can close the remaining gap with their opponents: Rebrand their message to unmarried women, an undermobilized electorate.

“Unmarried women comprise about a quarter of the electorate, so they have a lot of sway in terms of determining who is and who is not elected,” says Page Gardner, founder and president of the Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund. According to Ms. Gardner, the changing views of women in the 12 states could result in significant shifts in polling results.

According to the report, unmarried women tend to swing heavily Democratic – they went for President Obama by a 36-point margin in 2012 – but over the past two senatorial and presidential elections, the Democrats have been losing their edge among that group.

In a national post-election survey following the November 2010 senatorial elections, 60 percent of single women voted for Democrats versus 40 percent for Republicans, a 20-point gap. In a July 2014 survey, by contrast, this gap had shrunk to 11 percent.

Moreover, the number of unmarried women overall that make it to the voting booth has steadily declined in recent years due to what Mr. Greenberg believes to be voter apathy and disappointment in the economy.

So what, Democratic operatives are asking, can they do to reinvigorate this segment of their base?

Democracy Corps says it’s a matter of aggressively campaigning on women’s issues – promulgating a populist, empathetic economic message that focuses on the financial struggles of the unmarried.

For Democrats to succeed, the group’s report, released Tuesday, advocates “an ‘in your shoes’ populist narrative about people’s economic struggles, a policy agenda about finally helping mothers in the workplace and making sure those at the top are paying their fair share, and, most important, a critique of Republicans for their policies that hurt seniors and women.”

As part of a poll earlier in July, Democracy Corps tested two campaign messages on 1,000 likely voters in this November’s Senate battleground, one positive and the other negative. The first focused on promoting women’s economic success and equal treatment in the workplace, while the other portrayed Republicans as the protectors of corporations bent on denying women their basic health rights.

After unmarried women were exposed to these messages, the report says, the gap between Democratic and Republican support among this group jumped back up to 20 percent from 11 percent. According to Greenberg, that increase would put the Democratic Party and the GOP in an absolute dead heat in this year’s competitive Senate races.

To be sure, Democrats haven’t so far been blind to the political potential of unmarried women.

In 2013, Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat the Republican incumbent, Bob McDonnell, in the Virginia gubernatorial election by just over two points in a race that largely focused on Mr. McDonnell’s conservative record on reproductive rights. Bolstered by support from Planned Parenthood, Mr. McAuliffe won unmarried women by 42 points.

According to Greenberg and Gardner, however, that sort of health-based messaging might not be quite enough come November in this year’s socially conservative Senate battleground. Democrats, they say, must also emphasize the economic side of women’s rights.

“When you look at the results with unmarried women,” Greenberg says, “this is a very powerful piece of the agenda.”

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