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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Anna Greenberg: Democrats Should Double Down on ‘Women’s Issues’

The following article by Anna Greenberg, senior vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, is cross-posted from Politico:

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.

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