Dems' Fate in November May Ride on Female Turnout

Dems' Fate in November May Ride on Female Turnout
L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP
Dems' Fate in November May Ride on Female Turnout
L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP
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It’s election time, which means that another “battle of the sexes” is upon us.

 Since 1980, women have voted for Democratic presidential candidates at higher rates than men, which has Democratic Party officials excited and optimistic in 2018. But that famous gender gap doesn’t tell the whole story, especially in midterm elections. That’s because there is a marriage gap, too, which favors Republicans. So this year’s elections are all about turnout, particularly female turnout.

The Gender Gap

In the 1960s, when the term “gender gap” first gained currency, it related to the difference in wages earned by men and women. However, the phrase was expanded to voter trends when Ronald Reagan ran for president and 55 percent of men voted for him, compared to 47 percent of women -- an eight-point gap. By 1996, Bill Clinton had an 11-point gender gap advantage with women. In 2016, Donald Trump had the largest gender gap ever of 13 points -- with only 41 percent of women voting for him to Hillary Clinton’s 54 percent.

In this year’s elections, the Democrats’ goal is to turn out more women especially college educated in higher numbers than previous midterms, said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster. “If we can do that, our candidates will win,” she added. But that’s not assured. “It’s possible that 11 million unmarried women and 17 million millennials who voted in the presidential election will drop off in the midterms,” she warned. “We need these voters to show up and make the margin of difference.”

In 2016, 8 million more women turned out than men. Not only do women skew toward the Democrats, but women are a larger proportion of the electorate than men. Although this wasn’t enough to put the Clintons back in the White House, in 2018 Democrats are again pushing a “Year of the Woman” narrative.

 In 1991, after Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court turned into a test of wills between him and Anita Hill, a spate of female Democrats rode the wave into Congress. Could it happen again? Riding the wave of the #MeToo movement, Democrats hope so. Yet despite their belief that 2016 would break the ultimate glass ceiling and put a woman in the Oval Office, when the election returns were counted, some 52 percent of white women voted for the Donald over Hillary. Without proclaiming the reason too loudly, Democratic Party leaders are banking that 2018 will be different. Why? Because Hillary Clinton isn’t on the top of the ticket. Basically, they believe, it wasn’t the message, it was the messenger.

Party strategists are convinced, once again, that female voters will turn out to the polls because of the record number of women running for office. More than 300 Democratic women have thrown their hats in the ring to run for Congress. In a recent NBC/WSJ poll conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart, voters were asked how a woman on the ballot might influence their vote. About one-fourth of the respondents said it made them more enthusiastic to vote for that person if the candidate is a woman, while 44 percent stated it made no difference. This suggests that it’s  simply not enough to put a woman on the ticket to win. “Party always beats gender,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Many of the women are winning primaries against men, which is not surprising in a Democratic primary. In a general election, however, the gender of a candidate doesn’t resonate with independent and moderate voters, said John McLaughlin, one of Trump’s 2016 pollsters. By definition, these voters are less partisan and results-driven and mostly “care about the economy.” McLaughlin laid out the GOP appeal to such independent women: “Trump’s delivered on his promises. Not one Democrat voted for the tax bill, which has accelerated economic growth. They will regret this and pay for it on Election Day.”

The Marriage Gap

Since 1980, analysts have examined the marriage gap -- where married voters strongly lean Republican and unmarried voters lean Democratic. As voters marry, acquire mortgages, earn money and have kids, they tend to start voting more Republican. It didn’t only happen in 2016 when married voters supported Trump by 52 percent to 44 percent. It happened in 2012, when married women supported Mitt Romney by seven points over Barack Obama. However, for the first time since marriage voting data was compiled, married women flipped from the Republican column in 2016 with two points more support for Hillary Clinton.

With a woman at the head of their ticket, Democratic Party strategists consciously tried to turn married voters into ticket-splitting households. “Married women have a tendency to vote the same way as their husbands and we wanted to persuade them to separate and vote for the first woman president,” Lake explained. “Women responded to the message of being a role model for their daughters and granddaughters and to hold on to their own positions,” she added. “And it worked.”

Democratic candidates hoping to employ that strategy in 2018 were sabotaged by none other than Hillary Clinton, who inexplicably complained a few weeks ago about married women supposedly being bullied into voting for Trump by their husbands. Democrats, she claimed, “don’t do well with white men and we don’t do well with married, white women. And part of that is an identification with the Republican Party, and a sort of ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.”

What Really Drives Voters

Two other competing narratives are at play in 2018. The first is that elections are about ideas. The second is that midterm elections are generally seen as a referendum on the White House incumbent. Celinda Lake put it this way: “Issues matter more to women than the gender of the candidate.” Added John McLaughlin: “Women tend to be last-minute deciders and are results oriented.”

So which party does that help? “If you like [Trump’s] results, voters will reward him,” McLaughlin said. “Democrats are … pushing the impeachment narrative, Stormy Daniels, and Russian collusion. None of these issues affect people’s lives.”

But there are issues Democrats are talking about that they believe make their case. “Eighty percent of all health-care decisions are made by women and this is their top issue,” said Lake. As for the economy, Democrats are arguing that there’s more to the story than the impressive macroeconomic statistics frequently cited by the president. “Women care about kitchen table economics and they aren’t seeing the improving economy when paying their bills,” said Lake. “The cost of living is going up faster than wages.”

The upshot is that if a critical mass of women feel the country is moving in the right direction – that Donald Trump’s policies are more popular than Donald Trump himself -- the “blue tsunami” that Democrats are counting on might not materialize because results-oriented independent and moderate women simply won’t see the necessity for a change in direction.

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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