As we hurtle toward the midterms, campaign-watchers are beginning to speculate whether women hold the key to the next House majority. Recent press stories, current public polling, and our own recent work, suggest swing women voters engage with politics differently than we might think. The political language we speak in Washington is simply not spoken by the voters who ultimately tip the scale in close races.
My firm, Momentum Analysis, along with Neil Newhouse and Alex Bratty of the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, recently conducted focus groups among Walmart moms in three cities (Philadelphia, St. Louis and Denver). We talked to swing "Walmart moms," defined as mothers of children under 18 who have shopped in Walmart in the last month (and for the focus groups were not strong partisans). (Disclosure: Walmart sponsored all research on Walmart moms discussed in this post.) The disconnect between what interests these women, and what Washington talks about, was striking.
These moms spent a lot of time talking about the economy, schools, health care, and affordable housing. Not in the abstract, but in the here and now, as in "making sure there's food on the table, and gas in the car." Health care, notably, did not evoke the ire one saw months ago, a finding confirmed in EMILY List's survey of surge women voters in some of the group's targeted districts.
Just as important as what women talked about is what they didn't talk about. Barely any of the women in our focus groups brought up Washington hot topics like the Tea Party, immigration, abortion, "birthers," or earmarks. Given the Tea Party is disproportionately male, much of this is not a surprise. And a macro debate about our nation's economy was, for many, beside the point. Said one woman, "I don't think about the deficit, I think about how we're going to make it through the week."
This disconnect seems to reinforce feelings of distrust, suspicion, or, at best, ambivalence. If swing women are not hearing their top issues discussed by their elected officials (or the people who cover them), is it any surprise they find their leaders out of touch or uninterested?
Further, these women, like many swing voters, decide how to vote very close to the election. Hardly anyone in our groups knew anything about Minority Leader Boehner. Few knew much about Speaker Pelosi. And when asked about the very active Senate race in their respective state, similarly few were following the campaigns closely, and instead volunteered they would make their decisions closer to November. The EMILY's List survey also found over half of women surge voters had no impression of their current member of Congress.
But lack of close attention does not mean elections don't matter to these voters. In our September national survey of Walmart moms, a majority (55%) say decisions made by Washington affect them "a lot" yet only a third (31%) are "very interested" in this year's elections. Women make household purchasing decisions, run households, and are likely suffer disproportionately from high health care costs. On top of that, as our summer survey of Walmart moms showed, even many married moms bear the brunt of household tasks themselves.
So don't make the mistake Matt Lewis does. He argues that because men, allegedly, would rather have their wives cheat on them than lose their jobs, they care more about the economy, and so are more likely to vote. (Talk about a stretch!) As I've written before, women have consistently outnumbered men at the voting booth for decades, and they did again in 2008.
With so many close races, it's not too late for campaigns to move swing women voters. And for Democrats, it might be mission critical. A sizeable gender gap can stave off major losses. As we'll discuss in a future post, we think the gender gap seems poised to widen. So turnout may be as much--if not more--important than persuasion. Encouragingly, the EMILY's List survey showed surge women voters quickly became more enthusiastic after a short discussion about the issues.
Instead of lamenting that swing voters don't follow a campaign's twists and turns, campaigns should look for creative opportunities to address women's political interests. And spend as much time listening as talking. Swing women may be uninterested in the daily cage match of our political debate, but they are very much affected by the resulting policies. It's up to candidates to explain why this election matters, and what they will do to improve women's daily lives.