As Republicans and Democrats dig in for this year's midterm elections, they both say they're focused on winning over women. But that doesn't mean they're targeting the same voters.
Strategists surveyed from both parties believe this year's election results will depend on two distinct groups of female voters: single women targeted by Democrats, and married women sought after by Republicans. Indeed, despite all the talk of a gender gap, the bigger political divide is between married and unmarried women.
Last week, officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee revealed a new national voter model that will help them identify single women and devise the best messages to reach them, while an early blitz of TV ads from conservatives has been aimed squarely at married women.
The looming battle is critically important to correct two long-standing electoral dilemmas for each party. For Republicans, winning strong support from married women means they could close the gender gap, a problem that plagued them during President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. For Democrats, the goal is to ensure that single women, who are solidly Democratic, turn out to vote in the first place. Like other core members of the party's coalition, they vote in dramatically smaller numbers during midterm elections.
The political difference between married and unmarried women is stark. In 2012, Obama won unmarried women by better than 2-to-1 while losing their married cohorts, who voted 53 percent to 46 percent for Mitt Romney. The split stems from a variety of reasons. Single women, for instance, are more attuned to debates over access to contraception—a key Democratic talking point against Republicans in recent years.
But according to pollsters, the gap is rooted mostly in economics. Single women, especially those with children, tend to be poorer than married women, many of whom live in a two-income family. The difference in financial circumstances fundamentally alters how each views government assistance.
"Women in a stable marriage, whether a single- or double-income household—they have a support structure that's kind of built in," said Wes Anderson, a Republican strategist who has studied the split between the two blocs. "And they start to become more conscious about what they're paying for with other people, so they tend to gravitate toward us."
Their concern over government spending offers an opportunity for the GOP to press its case to married women with an issue already front-and-center with most voters: Obamacare. Anderson said a poll conducted in March by his firm OnMessage found that 55 percent of them oppose the health care law, a share roughly in line with the general public.
That survey was encouraging, he added, because it suggests the party can replicate its performance from 2010, when the health care law was also a leading issue. That year, Republicans won 56 percent of married women, leading to a sweeping midterm victory.
And it's no coincidence that most of the early TV advertising, especially from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, has featured middle-aged women sitting at their kitchen table who, while not explicitly identified as being married, explain the toll they say Obamacare has taken on them and their families. Republicans think their focus on the health care law paid dividends in the Virginia gubernatorial race, where Republican Ken Cuccinelli, branded by Democrats as out of the mainstream on social issues, won married women by 9 points, according to an analysis by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
Single women, while unenthused about Obamacare, view government support more favorably. And the issue allows Democrats to court them more effectively with promises of a social safety net.
"The problem is, and it's true for single men as well, getting by in this economy on one paycheck is really very challenging," said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political director, who sees the different political preferences of married and unmarried women as entirely the result of the differences in their wealth. "And that puts economic issues more in the forefront."
The challenge for Democrats isn't just to persuade these voters to back their candidates. They must first make sure they vote in the first place. And on both fronts, the party has reason to worry.
A survey released this week from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that 66 percent of single women who voted in the 2012 presidential election said they were "almost certain" to vote this year. That's less than the 72 percent of overall voters who said they were guaranteed to vote, and 13 points less than the 79 percent of Republican-leaning voters. Worse yet, Democrats are ahead with the group by only a 26-point margin (58 percent to 32 percent), not quite as bad as their 2010 showing but far from their 2012 advantage.
Those numbers, perhaps more than any other reason, explain why Democrats have adopted a populist agenda this year in Washington, pushing issues like equal pay for equal work and minimum-wage hikes. The party, facing a difficult national climate and a red-state Senate map, have to turn out and win over large shares of unmarried women to have a chance of mitigating their losses in 2014.
"Very few [single women] think the national political conversation addresses issues they care about most. And when that happens, they don't vote," said Erica Seifert, a Democratic pollster.
Seifert said she thought that in 2010, Democrats preached a message of economic recovery wholly out of touch with most of their base voters. This year's agenda, focusing on pocketbook issues and inequality, is far better suited to drive turnout.
"If you're a single woman, the message that Republicans will abandon you has had some effect in the past," Anderson said. "There's some resonance there with single parents, especially single moms.
"They paint that with a thick coat of class warfare to it, and they've had success with that in some places."
Obama's Equal Pay Hypocrisy
This article appears in the April 11, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.