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On to 2008—Understanding the Women’s Vote

December 8, 2006

Fresh from major advances for women in the 2006 mid-term elections, strategists are already looking closely at the decisions made by women voters in order to lay plans for 2008. The gender gap is alive and well, said Ethel Klein at a session in New York City yesterday cosponsored by the Demos network and the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW). However, she said, it is important to understand that “the women’s vote is not monolithic.”

Klein, president of EDK Associates, a New York based strategic research firm, emphasized that a close look at women’s voting patterns reveals significant geographical and racial differences. In electing the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House, for example, nationally women preferred Democrats by a gender gap of 5%. But while the gap was decisive in much of the country, it played less of a role in the South. In Senate contests, women were the deciding vote in a number of critical races. But in Virginia, where Democrat James Webb pulled out a narrow win, women of color as opposed to white women provided his margin of victory, though white women gave him substantially more support than white men. “We need to be less glib” when we credit women for these victories, said Klein. “We should be thinking about the women’s vote broken down into its various components.”

Women’s vote is issue driven, said Klein, whose 1984 book, Gender Politics: From Consciousness to Mass Politics, was one of the first to analyze the gender gap phenomenon. In elections where there has been little or no gender gap, she said, it’s generally because the “candidates aren’t talking issues important to women”—particularly at the end of campaigns, because women tend to remain undecided longer than male voters.

Research data on one segment of the women’s vote, Asian American women voters, is hard to find, said Courtney Chapell, of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. Voting trends are all the more difficult to discern since there are 30 different ethnic Asian populations in the U.S. But this growing constituency is already significant in states where their population is concentrated. In California, for example, Asian American women organized around the issue of reproductive freedom and helped defeat an antiabortion ballot initiative in November. Key for mobilizing these voters, Chapell said, is registration drives with sufficient numbers of interpreters and translated voter education materials. Voter turnout is generally low among these women, but “once registered, they do go to the polls in large numbers,” Chapell said.

To help get at ethnic and racial differences, the NCRW deliberately oversampled women of color in its poll of 2,000 registered voters, Women’s Priorities 2006, conducted directly before the midterms. In addition to open-ended questions, the poll asked voters how likely they would be to support candidates who favored a set of progressive policy positions, based on the interests of the council’s more than 100 research and policy centers. Voters indicated strong support for increasing student aid, upping the minimum wage, universal health care, and U.S. cooperation with other countries, with particularly strong and bipartisan support for fully funding the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The agenda drew more support from women than men in the poll, and women of color indicated overwhelming support of the agenda overall, which also included paid sick leave, access to birth control, and withdrawal from Iraq within a year among other issues. Single mothers also were much more supportive of the agenda than married mothers.

It’s important who asks the questions in polling research. Members of the panel pointed out that they would never have discovered the strong bipartisan support for VAW issues if a women’s organization hadn’t designed the poll. NCRW President Linda Basch said more research, especially using focus groups, was needed to tease out other variables, for example in the priorities of women of different economic classes.

(The panel was part of a continuing Women’s Empowerment Series organized by Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow Linda Tarr-Whelan.)