10/29/2010 12:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Won't Women Vote? It's the Economy, Stupid.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

You can now count the hours until Election Day. In this home stretch, pundits, politicians, and people of all ages are trying to read the tea leaves. That the GOP will make big gains -- very possibly taking one, if not both, of the houses of Congress -- seems like a given. And that loss may very well be due in part to the lack of enthusiasm among women voters, who historically vote in large numbers for Democrats.

The polls don't look good. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 23% of women described themselves as "extremely enthusiastic" -- versus 38% of men. In September, Gallup found that 31% of women are giving a lot of thought to the midterms, versus 45% of men who are paying close attention. And a New York Times/CBS News poll found that not only are men tuned in and fired up about the midterms, but they are motivated by a sense of anger, whereas women are stuck feeling hopeless. All of this points to large swaths of women sitting it out on November 2nd.

Why are women staying at home, despondent, and men so angrily rushing to the polls? It's all about the economy. In a new paper for Public Opinion Quarterly, The Macro Politics of a Gender Gap, authors Paul M. Kellstedt, David A. M. Peterson and Mark D. Ramirez decided to study the gender gap in voting over time to see what makes it change. They first looked broadly at what affects "policy mood", or which direction voters are poised to vote in, and laid out a general trend:

When economic times are expected to be good, the public becomes more willing to take on the burden of higher taxes and spending on welfare. In times when the economic future looks bleak, though, the electorate becomes less willing to underwrite liberal policy and will move to the right.

Simple enough: when you have money in your own pocket, you feel more concerned with what others need. This could go a long way in explaining the anti-spending Tea Party craze gripping the country. But despite this trend, women tend to support what the authors call "compassion issues" such as social welfare, education, health care, racial issues and the environment. So, the authors conclude, "A policy change that might be seen as too liberal for the average man might seem like the correct amount of spending to the average woman." The gender gap increases when domestic spending becomes more liberal, and men are more prone to change their minds than women, who stay more stable in their party preference over time -- both facts pointing to men swinging to the Republicans faster than women in reaction to liberal spending agendas.

Why might women be concerned with social programs? "Men tend to be less economically vulnerable than women, and they are less pessimistic than women about the economy," the authors note. Thus, we start to see a pretty clear picture of hopelessness. Women aren't feeling angry about a large deficit or stimulus spending in the trillions; quite the opposite, women tend to see how large the need is for more to be done to help those who are struggling. And many women are struggling themselves. Two-thirds of US families rely on a woman's earnings, burdening women workers, and women are suffering from unemployment -- the rate for single mothers has more than doubled since 2007 to hit the highest level in 25 years. Almost 14 percent of women are now officially living in poverty, which is the highest rate in 15 years.

And it's not just those who suffer the most that stand to benefit from the Democrat's policies. Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chelser pointed out to me, "Dems are challenged to make voters, and especially women, understand that it's not others but they themselves that benefit from generous and just public policy." An example? "Health care reform has huge benefits for all women in terms of accessing affordable health care," she says. Both lower-income and middle class women stand to benefit economically. But that message seems to be lacking.

Meanwhile, this has been a brutal political climate. Talk of witchcraft and masturbation have crowded out nuanced discussions of how to fix our economic mess. As Sara K. Gould, President of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Susan Wefald, EVP, noted in an op-ed for CNN, "What's missing, for most women, are the political narratives about the things that matter to them: good jobs, clean air, health care and what it will really take to rebuild our national economy." While hot air about a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero may motivate some voters, women want economic answers. "What our decades of work with thousands of grass-roots leaders across America have taught us is that women are impressed by solutions, not sound and fury," Gould and Wefald note.

The NYTimes spoke with one woman who probably summed up many women's feelings: "I just don't know who I can count on to move us in the direction I'd like to see the country go. Frankly, the financial problems are beyond our understanding." So when women don't show on Election Day, we may know the reason why.