February 17 2010
The Democrats' Woman Problem
Democrats have a woman problem.
Yes, the White House signed the Lilly Ledbetter legislation aimed at improving equality in the workplace. Yes, during a period of financial belt-tightening, the president recommended increasing spending on a series of "women's" issues such as programs to help victims of domestic violence. And, yes, the White House just gave female military personnel serving overseas access to the morning-after pill.
Feminist groups promise politicians this is a surefire path to women's hearts. Yet despite all this, support for the president among women is slipping. At this time last year, 66 percent of women approved of the president's performance in Gallup's weekly tracking polls. Today that number is 56 percent.
Of course, all this attention to identity-politics might just be the reason Democrats are in trouble. While the administration has been dutifully taking their cues from national women's organizations on the left, groups like NOW no longer represent mainstream American women.
Political analysts have argued for years about what makes women tick-or, more specifically in politics, what makes them vote. On one hand, researchers claim terrorism and moral values moved women to the polls for Republicans in recent elections. But others suggest "soft issues" like education and health care are most important to women and have more recently moved them to support Democrats. Clearly women are not a monolithic voting bloc; yet, Democrats continue to treat them as such, appealing to them through traditional "women's" policies.
But you don't have to look farther than three of the highest-profile 2010 mid-term elections to know what is motivating women today: Meg Whitman's gubernatorial run in California, Carly Fiorina's Senate campaign in California, and Linda McMahon's Senatorial bid in Connecticut. Each of these former business honchos (or honchas, as the case here may be) is running on the economy-and specifically on Laffer curve-infused policies aimed at reducing regulations, bringing down taxes, and cutting state spending.
The fact is, Americans-and especially women-have grown increasingly skeptical of government, seeing it as wasteful and inefficient. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that "two-thirds of Americans are ‘dissatisfied' or downright ‘angry' about the way the federal government is working," adding that "on average, the public estimates that 53 cents of every tax dollar they send to Washington is ‘wasted."
And women feel even more strongly about this incompetence. According to the results of a recent survey of women voters in Massachusetts commissioned by the Independent Women's Voice, "77 percent of women claim government spends money in a most inefficient way."
Nevertheless, President Obama and Democrats in Congress continue to see gender politics-and issues like reproductive rights and nanny-state policies-as the key to the woman's vote. They would be wise to reconsider: research reveals that women are not overwhelmingly concerned with abortion, for instance. According to a survey administered this fall by the Pew Research Center, overall concern about the issue has dropped. "Only a small minority of Americans (15 percent)," the survey found, "say abortion is a critical issue facing the country today, down from 28 percent who said this in 2006." And concern about abortion among liberal Democrats -the predominant demographic of NOW-is only 8 percent.
While it's true women care about health care-in large part because they are caretakers for children and the elderly-they don't support massive government-run reform as many Democrats would have you believe. Results from the IWV survey found that only 16 percent of respondents believe "healthcare should be a top issue for Congress." And large numbers of women (45 percent) think the $829 billion legislation was too much to spend on reforming our current system.
No doubt the Bush administration primed voters for dissatisfaction with profligacy. But the outrageous spending and the top-down, Keynesian economic policies of the current administration have led to a more general distrust of government, especially among women.
Today, a growing number of women out-earn their spouses. A 2007 Pew study found nearly a quarter of men surveyed made less than their wives, compared with only 4 percent in 1970. Women earn a majority of bachelor degrees, as well as master's degrees. And as women's earnings have increased, so has their purchasing power. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman note in their recent book Womenomics, in 2007 "women broke the automobile halfway mark and bought 53 percent of all cars in the United States."
It's no wonder then, that women today are focused on the economic crisis. Even in 2004, when terrorism and national security trumped all, political scientists Ronnee Schreiber and Susan Carroll, found that jobs and the economy were still of serious concern to both Republican (12.5 percent) and Democratic women (36.1 percent).
Today, Pew research tells us 83 percent of the country believes the economy is our top priority, and women clearly still agree. Seventy-nine percent of women in Massachusetts reported to IWV that "jobs and the economy" were the top or one of the top three issues for them. And, perhaps even more important, these women view less government and fewer taxes (78 percent) as the best way to speed up the country's economic recovery.
Candidate Obama may have won the majority of the women's vote, but President Obama's losing their support fast. And if he wants to win it back, he ought to stop trying to appease women through soft issues and start focusing on the very hard economic challenges affecting women everyday.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.