Democrats have long had an electoral advantage among women, particularly among single and suburban professional women, that has helped propel them to victory in elections both in presidential and non-presidential years. In 2008, for example, exit polling showed that President Obama won women by 56% to 49%; and in 2012, the breakdown was 55% to 44%. The reasons for the disparity in these elections, and in many others at the national, state, and local level, have been the subject of speculation for decades, ever since the so-called “gender gap” was first noticed. Among the factors that have been cited has been the fact that women tend to have more “liberal” views on economic and pocketbook issues and tend to support a less aggressive foreign policy, although that last one doesn’t really apply to the Democratic Party in the age of Obama, and, of course, the fact that the Republican Parry’s stance on social issues, as well as debacles like 2012's comments by various candidates about abortion and rape and the comments of many on the right about birth control issues, have turned women off to the party as a whole. That doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t do well among women, of course. Ronald Reagan won the women’s vote quite handily in his 1984 landslide, for example, and George H.W. Bush won it narrowly in his smaller 1988 landslide. More recently, just last year, Chris Christie won the women’s vote in deep blue New Jersey by twelve points. In 2010, Republicans won women by a narrow 1% on the way to taking control of the House. Now, as we head into a midterm that could hand control of the Senate, President Obama’s problems with women, which seem to have come out of nowhere, threaten to hurt his party:
Female voters powered President Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in 2012, as Democrats leaned heavily on social issues to rally single women and suburban moms to the polls.
But with two weeks until Election Day, the president’s diminished standing with women is quickly becoming one of the biggest liabilities facing Democrats as they struggle to hang onto the Senate majority.
In battleground states across the country, Obama is underwater with female voters – especially women unaffiliated with a political party – and it’s making it harder for Democrats to take advantage of the gender gap, according to public polling and Democratic strategists.
Already Democrats are taking a beating from men, who back Republicans over Democrats by double digits in most of the key Senate races. But to overcome that deficit, Democrats need to win over female voters by a wider margin in battleground states like Colorado, Iowa, Alaska, North Carolina and New Hampshire. That task that will be the primary focus of Democratic campaigns as they prepare an intensive voter-turnout operation.
First, they must overcome the Obama factor. After defeating Mitt Romney by 11 points among women in 2012, the president has seen his approval rating drop sharply with females, particularly in the battleground states.
In Alaska, for instance, Obama lost soundly in 2008 and 2012. But he’s only gone downhill from there, especially among female voters, only 29 percent of whom give him high marks. Obama’s unpopularity could be having a spillover effect on Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who is fighting for his political life against Republican Dan Sullivan. In one recent CNN/ORC poll of likely voters, Begich was losing women to Sullivan by 7 points.
According to a Quinnipiac poll this week, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall was trailing by 19 points to his GOP challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, among male voters. In that poll and a new CNN poll, the Republican was down only 9 points among women. In 2010, when Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet barely beat GOP candidate Ken Buck, the Democrat won female voters by 17 points and lost men by 10, according to exit polls. Most Democrats believe Udall needs a similar advantage to win.
But the president’s sharp decline in Colorado has made life much harder for Udall. The CNN poll showed 60 percent of white women disapproving of Obama’s job performance – and 56 percent of nonwhite women also holding negative views. Just two years ago, Obama outperformed Romney in Colorado, 51-49 percent, among female voters, according to exit polls, as the president carried the state.
In Kentucky, where Obama lost 116 of 120 counties in 2012, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has run about even with female voters, according to several polls, while holding a double-digit advantage among men. In recent Fox News and CNN polls, for instance, McConnell was down just 2 points and 3 points, respectively, among female voters to Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, helping him maintain an advantage in the closely watched race.
In New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen led Scott Brown by 8 points among female voters, according to a New England College poll, with nearly half of female voters disapproving of Obama’s performance in office. By comparison, Obama won female voters 58-42 percent against Romney two years ago in New Hampshire.
In North Carolina, a recent survey USA poll showed Sen. Kay Hagan up 16 points among female voters and down 12 points among men, a race that remains a dead heat. But in Iowa, where Democrats are trailing narrowly, Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst holds an 18-point advantage among men, while Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley is up 13 points among women, according to a Quinnipiac poll.
In Iowa, much like the other states, Obama is shedding support among women. For instance, 53 percent of women viewed Obama unfavorably, according to a recent Des Moines Register poll, even though Obama won 59 percent of the female vote in 2012.
It’s a problem pollsters say Democrats will have to reckon with.
“He’s not doing as badly [with women] as he is among men, but it’s hardly anything to write home about,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “Which is why many of these Democratic candidates are still struggling.”
Arguably, this loss of the advantage among female voters is a good part of the reason that Democratic candidates for the Senate are struggling this year and Republicans look likely to take control of the Senate with only two weeks to go until Election Day. In Alaska, for example, Dan Sullivan has a comfortable lead over Mark Begich in the RealClearPolitics average. Cory Gardner appears to be pulling ahead of Mark Udall in Colorado, with a 3.0 point lead in the average in that state. After a brief tizzy caused by a poll that appears now to be an outlier, Sen. Mitch McConnell appears headed for re-election over Alison Lundergan Grimes. In New Hampshire, there are at least some indications that Scott Brown is closing the gap with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, as is Thom Tillis in North Carolina in his race against Sen. Kay Hagan. Finally, Joni Ernst has led in pretty much every poll in Iowa this month and hasa 2.5 point lead over Bruce Braley and the Republican candidates in Arkansas and Louisiana also seem to be on track for victory in November.
Now, all of these races may not pan out for the GOP, but enough of them seem to be leaning in the Republican direction that, given the minimal amount of time left and the factors that are influencing the race, it seems a fair guess to say that most of them will, unless something drastic changes in the next two weeks. One of those factors that is clearly influencing the race is the president’s job approval rating, which remains quite low overall and on specific issues such as the economy and foreign policy. As the linked article notes, the drop in the president’s job approval applies regardless of gender, and it appears to be impacting the Senate races that will decide who controls the upper house of Congress. No doubt, with the campaign in crunch mode for the next 13 days, we will see Democrats try to turn the tide on the women’s vote in the close races noted above. Mark Udall’s focus on abortion, which has also been popping up in races in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas, is quite obviously aimed at both changing the minds of female voters who may be leaning toward the Republican candidate and mobilizing them to get out and vote. Whether that effort succeeds or fails may end up being the deciding factor in the battle for the Senate.
Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.