03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Post-Election Lessons for Progressives

While much has been made about what the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia portend for 2010, a post election survey of both voters and non-voters commissioned by Women"s Voices Women Vote (WVWV) offers several important lessons for progressives and civic engagement groups.

Our survey takes an in-depth look at the difference between what we have termed the Rising American Electorate (RAE) ---unmarried women, youth (18-29), African Americans, Latinos, and other non-white races--- and the rest of the voters and non-voters in New Jersey and Virginia.

While much was made of the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial candidates' efforts to reach out to women voters, our research once again confirms that there is no such thing as "women voters," as married and unmarried women have very different lives, views, and voting patterns. Indeed, the "marriage gap" -- the difference in voting behavior between married and unmarried women - was a significant factor in these elections.

Despite a wide variety of differences among unmarried women, they overwhelmingly support progressive public policies. But here too, there is a lesson. While the marriage gap was significant in both New Jersey and Virginia, the fact that Creigh Deeds only garnered 53 percent of the vote among unmarried women and John Corzine only garnered 59 percent demonstrates that unmarried women need to be mobilized by progressives or they can be lost. In 2008, Barack Obama won 70 percent of the vote among unmarried women.

RAE voters, who were a major force in driving turnout in 2008, dropped off in disproportionate numbers in New Jersey and Virginia. In Virginia, as a proportion of the total electorate, the RAE dropped from 45 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2009; RAE voter drop-off was even higher in New Jersey, going from 49 percent to 39 percent.

However, our survey provides some important lessons as to what messages can motive RAE groups to vote. RAE voters who turned out to vote in New Jersey and Virginia were more likely than non-RAE voters to believe that their vote could make difference. Additionally, RAE voters who stayed away from the polls offered as their number one reason for not voting that they didn't think their vote mattered. The message here is clear, RAE voters need to be told their vote matters and why.

At the same time, RAE non-voters were the most likely to cite as a reason for not voting, that they did not know enough about the candidates or the issues. Fully 37 percent of RAE voters who did not vote say they did not know the issues or candidates well enough to make an informed vote. Again, the implications are clear: RAE voters need to hear candidates discuss issues in a straightforward manner that makes clear how the policies they advocate are relevant to voters' lives. It is also noteworthy that only 16 percent of RAE voters who did not vote heard more from the Deeds campaign than from the McDonnell campaign; 29 percent heard more from the McDonnell campaign. Part of this is a failure to educate.

Looking at the results of our survey, it is clear that progressives and civic engagement groups will need to pay particular attention to RAE voters, keeping them informed and engaged. WVWV and other independent groups must continue developing the methods and messages that engage the Rising American Electorate so that the gains achieved in voter interest and participation during the 2008 elections can be sustained. Such efforts are crucial to our ensuring that our public policy debates and future elections reflect the greatest number of citizens and broadest range of voices.

The Rising American Electorate now constitutes a majority -- 52% -- of the voting-eligible population in America. That's 107 million eligible voters. In 2008 elections, the RAE accounted for 47 percent of the electorate and made their voice heard in support of progressive public policies on education, energy, equality, health care, and the environment.

It goes without saying that if the RAE stays at home in 2010, the chances for progressive legislation being adopted will be greatly diminished. And for groups like WVWV, the achievements regarding the participation of traditionally underrepresented groups in our democracy will be undermined.