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.

This blurring of differences on Democratic issues also had an important impact on older voters, who, along with women, were a key target identified by Republican strategists. Despite running a national campaign almost exclusively on a commitment to seniors’ issues, Democrats lost senior citizens by five points. This margin represents an improvement over 1998, when the Democrats lost seniors by ten points, but a significant drop from 2000, when Democrats won seniors by four points. Of course, drug benefits and Social Security were far from the only issues in the election; the war on terrorism and national security concerns contributed to this Democratic weakness, especially among older men.

Ironically, the Democrats performed most strongly among voters under 30. Democrats won twentysomething voters by three points despite claims by Karl Rove that Republican support is growing among younger voters. The Democrats improved their margin in spite of the fact that they had almost nothing to say to younger voters, who are generally more concerned about education and job security than the solvency of the Social Security trust fund. The Democrats also improved their standing in spite of the fact that younger voters generally support some form of privatization (opposition to privatization has been a central rallying cry for the Democrats this year). In a survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (POS) and GQR for National Public Radio in the spring, 71 percent of voters under 34 supported investing some of their Social Security contribution in the stock market, compared with just 47 percent of baby boomers and 30 percent of senior citizens.

The Democratic success with younger voters lies, in part, in the greater racial diversity of younger voters. Thirty percent of such voters identify themselves as black, Hispanic, Asian or as belonging to some other group, compared with only 12 percent of senior citizens. People who identify themselves with these minority and ethnic groups generally tend to vote more Democratic than Republican. Among white voters, on the other hand, Democrats do equally badly with younger and older voters, losing them by fifteen and eleven points, respectively.

But just as important, younger voters worry about where the Bush Administration is taking the country, and they perceive real differences between the parties on the issues they care about. When asked what two issues would inform their vote for Congress in an October NPR/POS/GQR survey, nearly half said education, an issue on which the Democrats actually have a ten-point advantage among younger voters. In GQR postelection research, when young voters were asked why they opted for the Democratic candidate in this election, their top three reasons were to stop Bush and the Republicans from “going too far,” to protect the environment and to oppose GOP tax cuts for the wealthy. These same voters gave the Democrats a twenty-nine-point advantage over the Republicans on handling energy and the environment.

The fact that younger voters moved in a more Democratic direction is instructive. Younger voters saw real differences between the parties on the issues they cared about, like the environment and education. In contrast, most other voters saw the parties as indistinguishable on taking care of our economic woes and perceived fewer differences than in the past on important domestic policy matters like education and prescription drugs. In the context of a larger advantage for the Republicans on handling issues of national security and terrorism in a time of great anxiety, is it any wonder that the Republicans made inroads among key swing groups for the Democrats? Perhaps if women and seniors had seen clear differences between the parties on the issues they cared about, they would have stuck with the Democrats.