As a season of campaigning enters its final, intense weekend, a new Associated Press-GfK poll illustrates the challenge ahead for candidates and their allies trying to rally voters around traditional wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage. This fall, voters just have other matters on their minds.
Social issues are eclipsed by concerns about the economy, health care, the Islamic State group and Ebola, the poll finds. And hovering over each of these individual issues is a broad dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in Congress.
Only 32 percent of likely voters called gay marriage an important issue, compared with 91 percent ranking the economy important, 78 percent with similar concerns about health care and 74 percent naming Ebola important. The issue that some Democrats have emphasized most of all — abortion rights — also has been a relatively low priority, with only 43 percent of likely voters in a September poll ranking it important.
Yet women's health and reproductive rights have been at the center of campaigns for U.S. Senate in Alaska, Iowa, North Carolina and especially Colorado. There, half of the ads aired by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and those backing his re-election have criticized his GOP opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, on women's health issues. They include a contention the 40-year-old congressman from eastern Colorado wants to ban some forms of birth control.
"Democrats this year clearly think that all that you need is that silver bullet of social issues," said Katy Atkinson, a GOP political official in Denver. "It's not. You need more."
Gardner may have been able to parry the offensive by proposing that birth control pills be sold over-the-counter, without a prescription. After he began airing an ad on his proposal last month — as security concerns rose amid U.S. military action against the Islamic State group in the Middle East and the West Africa outbreak of the Ebola virus — Gardner moved ahead in public polls.
Gardner isn't the only Republican to propose the sale of birth control over-the-counter. So, too, have Republicans running for Senate in North Carolina, Virginia and Minnesota.
The issue of access to birth control has also found its way into the Senate race in Iowa, where Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley has hammered his Republican opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst, for her support of bestowing personhood status on a fetus. He says that would outlaw abortion, in-vitro fertilization and most kinds of contraception; she says she supports access to birth control and abortion in some circumstances.
Some voters have scoffed at the emphasis.
"They do a lot of yapping about how contraceptives have to do a lot with women's health, which is a load of crap," said Donald Johnson, 82, a staunch Republican in Clinton, Iowa. "If they want contraception, they can go and get it. It doesn't cost that much. There's no reason the government should be paying for it."
On both abortion and same-sex marriage, recent AP-GfK polling has found likely voters more apt to trust Democrats than Republicans. But on issues that have captured more of voters' attention this midterm season, such as the economy and protecting the country, Republicans have the advantage.
Republicans have emphasized terrorism and Ebola threats in the campaign's closing days, though the poll suggests Ebola inspires less of a partisan preference than other issues.
Cindy Nath, a 59-year-old high school teacher in Colorado Springs, is most worried about economic inequality but also has concerns about reproductive freedom. A Democrat, she's already cast an early ballot for Udall. But the issues her students discuss are very different — the Islamic State group and Ebola. "That's what they're talking about," she said. "ISIS comes up every day."
Women's votes have shifted sharply between presidential years and midterm elections in recent contests, according to exit polling conducted for the AP and ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC. In 2012, women broke for Obama by an 11-point margin, while in 2010, when few candidates raised social issues as a major campaign theme, they split evenly between Democratic and Republican House candidates.
Atkinson noted that social issues usually poll low in priority but can be effective in defining candidates as too extreme. That's how Democrats have won recently in Colorado. Although polling shows Udall slightly behind, his campaign believes he can win with a superior get-out-the-vote operation and by continuing to use women's health issues to motivate key voting groups. Democrats are particularly targeting single women, whose participation dips in midterm elections.
The model is Sen. Michael Bennet's 2010 come-from-behind win, where he similarly focused on women's health. Still, a gender gap cuts both ways. Several recent polls in Colorado have shown Gardner's advantage among men outpaces Udall's among women.
But Jill Hanauer, a Denver-based Democratic strategist, said people should not mistake a temporary issue advantage for something permanent.
"Republicans have immediate issues to run on and Democrats have much broader, long-term ones like climate change and reproductive rights," Hanauer said. "This election is one point in time, not a long-term trend."
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 16-20, using KnowledgePanel, GfK's probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,608 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for all respondents.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.
Agiesta, AP's director of polling, reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Stacy A. Anderson and Emily Swanson contributed to this report.