No Year of the Woman: Female "Reagan Seniors" Reject Dems, Women May Lose Seats

Nov 10, 2010

At a post-election forum at Demos, "Will More Women Candidates Lead to More Women in Office?", four speakers analyzed the results and what they mean. Celinda Lake, President of polling firm Lake Research Partners, discussed data on women voters: the gender gap, the difference between the number of men and women voting Democrat, still remained substantial, she said. And despite the pre-election worry that women wouldn't show up the polls on the 2nd, they made up 53% of the electorate, which is about their average. So all of that pre-election worry may have been for naught.

But Lake pointed out some striking changes in voting patterns. Unmarried women went heavily for the Democrats this year, with 61% in their favor, while married women voted for Republicans by 43%. But even unmarried women's support for Dems shrunk -- in 2008, 70% of unmarried women voted that ticket. Meanwhile, fewer unmarried women showed up at the polls, making up 19% of the electorate, down from 23% in '08. As an example, that margin of difference would have delivered Alex Sink into the governorship of Florida, Lake pointed out.

Seniors were the group least impressed by Democrats all around. This isn't so much a new phenomenon, Lake says. "The Roosevelt seniors are gone. We've been with Reagan seniors for some time," she pointed out. So Obama lost the senior vote in 2008. But this year was even more brutal -- there was a 21-percentage point defection for the GOP, the biggest in decades. Indeed, while 61% of 18-29-year-olds went for Dems, 56% of women 60 and older went for the GOP -- the only female age group to go red.

Meanwhile, C. Nicole Mason, Executive Director of the Women of Color Policy Network, added that women of color voted overwhelmingly Democratic this year, even if fewer showed up than in past elections. The numbers back her up: 94% voted blue. Latino women in particular made a huge impact in the West, she said, carrying Democratic candidates to power particularly in Nevada and Colorado.

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Why did unmarried women stay home? Why are seniors upset? I've said it before, and Lake echoed the point: "It's the economy, stupid." Women are discouraged, she explained. They've seen their hours, wages, and benefits cut while their families rely more and more on their income. They express feeling stretched the max and their ability to roll with the punches has run out. In the midst of all this, a solid economic narrative never emerged to prove Dems were focused on building economic security for families. Instead, women felt that the discussions were all at the macro level and in favor of Wall Street. So, as Marie Wilson, President of The White House Project put it, "Voters aren't partisan, they're pissed." And women had a reason to be ticked off.

But while men may believe they won't need to rely on the social safety net, women know that it's very likely either they or someone in their family will, Lake explained. They see a role for government in protecting their economic security. They're concerned about Social Security -- women now start worrying about retirement at age 35 as their families raid their retirement funds, she pointed out. And they care about how health care reform will pan out. Eighty percent of women are the decision makers in their families on health care matters (a fact few men dispute).

Meanwhile, the story wasn't any better for women in office than it was for those at the polls. This is clearly not a year of the woman. For the number of women in Congress and governorships, the best outcome seems to be maintaining the status quo, while some undecided races may prove to actually lower the headcount, said Debbie Walsh, Director at the Center for American Women and Politics. That's the first time in 30 years that there won't be an increase. With an overall Republican sweep, the GOP missed the opportunity to catapult more women into office by not running enough of them and by conservatives voting out the more moderate GOP women in primaries, she added. But women disproved the notion that they would vote for a conservative woman because she was a woman. Walsh noted that of the six "marquee" female conservative candidates -- Christine O'Donnell, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Sharon Angle, and Nikki Haley -- only Haley saw victory. It was not about the gender of the candidate, she notes; it was about the party of the candidate.

Check out the video from the event for full presentations:

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