Democrats Should Double Down on ‘Women’s Issues’

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

This article by Anna Greenberg, partner and Senior Vice President of GQR, originally appeared in  Politico Magazine on December 02, 2014.

What if Democrats are about to learn the wrong lesson from the 2014 midterm election? In the initial period after the Democratic Party’s dramatic defeat, there was much criticism about how the party focused too much on “women’s issues,” an emphasis that allegedly cost the party races like Mark Udall’s Colorado Senate seat. Indeed, just days after the election, unnamed Democrats expressed frustration with Nancy Pelosi for “focusing so strongly on women without a broader message that could play to other groups, such as older voters and men.”

But as post-election research suggests, it increasingly appears that both parties actually missed an opportunity to appeal successfully to female voters. There’s no evidence that Democratic candidates went too far discussing “women’s issues” or that “women’s issues” represent a narrow rather than “broad” message. In fact, there is considerable evidence the discussion (and Democrats) did not go far enough.

Part of the problem with “blaming” Democratic losses on a hyperfocus on women is the narrow way “women’s issues” have been defined by the media and party politicians. The “fight” over the women’s vote has been seen primarily in terms of reproductive rights, with the Democratic Party as the defenders of a woman’s right to choose and the Republican Party as the defenders of “traditional motherhood.” Make no mistake, access to safe, legal abortion is foundational to women’s social and economic freedom. But this focus excludes the broader range of concerns — particularly economic — that women face.

It is true that in 2012, President Barack Obama’s “women’s agenda” expanded slightly to include touting the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter equal pay legislation and opposition to the defunding of Planned Parenthood. But it was not until this year that party leaders like Pelosi and Rosa DeLauro put together a comprehensive proposal called “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds.” It included pay equity, paid sick leave, increasing the minimum wage, expanding educational opportunities and protection from pregnancy discrimination. The agenda was supported with events in congressional districts and a bus tour; many Democratic candidates for the House and Senate in a number of races trumpeted their support for equal pay.

Republican candidates, too, clearly saw the benefit of appearing to be advocates for women. (After all, the electorate is majority female.) Unlike 2010, when Todd Akin and Richard Mourdoch’s statements about gender collectively launched a “war on women,” this time around the GOP moderated its rhetoric and blurred distinctions on issues like access to reproductive health care. The party devoted a lot of energy to training its candidates to be less scary to women, to perform better on abortion rights and to appear more moderate. Some Republicans in swing districts even talked about pay equity, including Frank Guinta in New Hampshire, who beat Carol Shea-Porter, and Elise Stefanik in New York’s 21st District, who will be the youngest women ever elected to Congress.

As such, this focus on women’s issues turned out to be mostly symbolic — less to promote a comprehensive women’s economic agenda and more an issue sprinkled here and there. Democrats used equal pay as an attack on Republicans to suggest they were out of the mainstream, and Republicans used equal pay to demonstrate that they were squarely in it. Their Republican opponents even attacked Democratic candidates Kathleen Rice (New York’s 4th District) and John Faust (Virginia’s 10th District) for being unsupportive of women in the workplace.

Far from hurting them, a more fulsome conversation about the economic standing of women might very well have helped Democrats, as at least one post-election poll shows that a candidate’s position generically on “women’s issues” was among the top reasons to vote Democratic. In regression analysis, a candidate’s position on women’s issues was the strongest predictor of the vote for a Democratic candidate, stronger than a candidate’s position on issues like Social Security and Medicare and on health care.

Democrats lost this year, in part because they “underperformed” with female voters (though they did slightly better among women than in 2010). In part, this can be explained by a drop in turnout among Democratic base voters, who are more likely to be female. It can be explained by the reassurance or “moderation” that better Republican candidates offered female voters on birth control, choice and equal pay. Even so, in states where there were more robust conversations about women’s economic standing, such as New Hampshire and North Carolina, Democrats performed significantly better among women than nationally: Jeanne Shaheen won women by 19 points (59 percent to 40 percent), Kay Hagan won women by 12 points (54 percent to 42 percent), and even Mark Udall won women by 8 points (52 percent to 44 percent).

In fact, there is considerable evidence that Udall lost his reelection bid not because there was too much discussion of issues like a woman’s right to choose but because he failed to make the case he was the best candidate for the middle class and working women, specifically. According to a post-election poll conducted for NARAL Pro Choice America/Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Udall had significant and strong advantages on women’s reproductive health, and they were powerful reasons to vote against Cory Gardner. But he had only low-single-digit advantages over Gardner on who would do a better job “taking on the corporate interests and fighting for the middle class” (45 percent Udall, 40 percent Gardner) and “promoting economic policies that help working women and families” (45 percent Udall, 42 percent Gardner).

Looking forward, the lesson of this election is that Democrats lacked an economic narrative that could convince voters that they would do a better job looking out for people who are struggling to get into or to stay in the middle class. The particular financial challenges that women face are inextricably related to our nation’s ongoing economic woes. The rise of female breadwinning and single parenting has created a set of economic challenges that women, as a whole, have never experienced before (women of color, of course, have faced these issues for much longer).

Indeed, we appear to be at the precipice of a revolt against the way work and pay are structured in society, especially for women, who are more likely to be single parents, more likely to be concentrated in low-wage work and more likely to bear the brunt of caretaking responsibilities. Now, more than 40 percent of children are born to unmarried women, and women head more than 80 percent of single-parent households. Forty percent of all households with children age 18 or younger include a mother who is the sole or primary source of income — compared with just 10 percent in 1960. Overall, 41 percent of all mothers are the primary breadwinners, and 22 percent are co-breadwinners. Women make up two-thirds of the low-wage workers in the United States, and women are more likely to live in poverty than men.

Instead of abandoning “women’s issues,” Democrats should double down — become the champions of policy changes that would improve women’s economic standing, not simply because they would be incredibly politically popular, but because they could actually transform people’s lives. The party’s representatives should vote not simply to close the pay gap between men and women but to raise the minimum wage and wages across the board. They should vote for policies that would subsidize the cost of child care and expand early childhood education, and they should push for more flexible workplaces where workers could have more power over their schedules and receive paid sick and parental leave. And, of course, they should preserve and expand access to reproductive health care and birth control.

And, by the way, these policy changes would help a lot of men, too.