Historically, the Democratic Party has relied upon women voters to provide it with winning margins in national elections. This November, however, women were less enthusiastic about the Democrats than previously, a situation that, unless corrected quickly, suggests serious trouble ahead.
According to postelection research conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR), the Democrats won women by a meager two points this year, compared with margins that ranged from six points to ten points throughout the 1990s. The vote among men, which favored the Republicans by nine points, was essentially unchanged. And unlike the erosion in women’s support that the party experienced in 1994, when it suffered a strong drop-off among white, blue-collar women, this year the Democrats experienced drops with college-educated and non-college educated women alike. In the last off-year election, Democrats won college-educated women by ten points, but in 2002 they edged out the Republicans by only three points.
This erosion is not hard to understand. Women generally support Democrats because they favor their social welfare agenda, not because of the Democratic platform on “women’s issues” like abortion. Certainly, a narrow slice of the electorate bases decisions on these hot-button issues, but these voters are in the minority, and generally there is more intensity among antiabortion supporters. But this year, building on the progress they had already made in diminishing the Democratic advantage on education, the Republicans successfully muddied the debate on social welfare, particularly Social Security and prescription drugs.
The co-optation of the Democratic agenda was part of a deliberate and coordinated effort by the GOP and its allies. The United Seniors Association, a mouthpiece for the pharmaceutical companies, spent about $9 million on ads in twenty contested House races touting the Republican drug plan passed in June. Republican candidates and the GOP party committees attacked Democrats for a variety of evils, including supporting privatization of Social Security–in reality a position held by most Republicans–and for allegedly voting in Congress to cut Social Security benefits. These accusations generally were distortions; for instance, in Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District, the Republicans characterized Democrat Jill Long Thompson’s budget votes in her previous stint in Congress as votes to cut Social Security.
In the end, the voters were just confused. In GQR research, a plurality of the voters said that both Democratic and Republican candidates supported reducing the costs of prescription drugs, while only a third said there were differences between the parties on this issue. And while the Republicans did not eliminate the Democratic advantage with regard to retirement security, they were able to diminish it significantly. For instance, while Democrats maintained a nine-point advantage over the Republicans on “doing a better job handling retirement and Social Security” in GQR polls taken after the election, this margin was down from sixteen points in late October.
Once the Republicans diminished the Democratic advantage on issues like Social Security, prescription drugs and education, it’s not surprising that some women moved over to the Republicans. In fact, in GQR research, when women voters were asked their primary reason for supporting a Republican candidate for Congress, getting a prescription-drug benefit for seniors and protecting Social Security ranked almost as high as supporting the war on terrorism and the President. For women over 50 and women without a college education, these social welfare concerns were their top reasons for supporting Republican candidates.