Who’s Driving the Democrats’ Agenda?- by Dawn Laguens
My friend Doug Sosnik has forgotten more about analyzing polling data than most of us will ever know, but he mistakes the wave for the currents in his POLITICO Magazine cover story, “Blue Crush: How the left took over the Democratic Party.” By focusing on ideology, Sosnik’s analysis ignores what is driving the power shift in the Democratic electorate. The reason that Democrats have achieved a consensus supporting LGBT rights, marijuana legalization and immigration reform is because they now enjoy a double-digit lead among women, especially unmarried women.
The left hasn’t taken over the Democratic Party. Women have. Sosnik does write that he can’t imagine “a viable Democratic presidential candidate,” much less a nominee, “who isn’t willing to take clear positions on … supporting women’s health and their reproductive rights,” but this core value is embedded among positions on hydraulic fracking and the minimum wage. In that word salad, it’s hard to tell the side dish from the entree. Put simply, when polls show a double-digit gender gap — and women turn out — we know who’s going to win and why.
If you’re looking for growth trends on issues, I admit abortion doesn't jump out at you. This is partly because organizations like Gallup, which have been polling opinions on abortion since 1975, are loath to change their standard questions — even though there is significantly higher support for abortion access when voters are asked directly about overturning Roe v. Wade. Even in Gallup polls only about one in five support an outright ban, virtually unchanged since Gerald Ford was in the White House.
And certainly, the trend lines Sosnik cites on immigration, gay rights, and liberalized pot speak loudly and with great gusto, but claiming that those issues are driving the makeup of the Democratic electorate mixes up cause and effect. What is driving Democratic consensus on those issues is the same double-digit gender gap that wins elections, and what is driving that gender gap are unmarried women. Half of all adult women are now unmarried, they’re more likely than ever to vote for Democrats, there are 10.4 million more of them since Clinton was in the White House and they are disproportionately African American.
Not too long ago, unmarried women were swing voters and not viewed as an indispensable part of the Democratic base vote. What changed is that the attacks on abortion rights have expanded to include access to the full range of women's healthcare services. When politicians vote to defund Planned Parenthood, they are cutting off women’s access to things such as Pap tests, breast cancer screenings, and birth control. And you know who goes to Planned Parenthood health centers? Unmarried women don’t just go to the polls. They also go to Planned Parenthood.
The fight over contraceptive coverage is a wake up call to this core constituency, and it moves votes—lots of them. We saw this in 2012 when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for daring to testify before Congress. After birth control became the subject of a national argument in 2012, the generic congressional ballot moved from 47-53 in the GOP’s favor into a 48-48 tie. Exit polling in 2012 showed that 89% of swing voters considered women’s health important, and 74% thought the same of contraception.
That was not an isolated incident. Terry McAuliffe is Virginia’s governor largely thanks to unmarried women, a voting bloc he won by 42 points (in addition to winning African American women by 84 points). And we know that access to abortion and women’s healthcare drove those huge numbers. A large portion of all the ads against Ken Cuccinelli attacked his extreme positions on women - even ads run by environmental and gun groups.
After Cuccinelli and Mitt Romney lost—not to mention Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, and others I’ve forgotten—you’d think that a double-digit gender gap would convince the extreme wing that has hijacked the Republican party to stop. But no. Now we’re talking about the Hobby Lobby decision, and just in time for the November elections. We just commissioned a poll by Hart Research Associates that found that most women voters know about the Hobby Lobby case and a large majority of them oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling. Almost three out of four women said this issue is important to them personally, and 57% of women voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who opposes allowing employers to refuse to cover birth control.
The more these issues show up, the more unmarried women are motivated to vote for a party that isn't always busy playing gynecologist. That is what’s driving women to the Democratic party and, as a result, achieving consensus on a wide range of issues. The real mystery is why, after losing election after election, the extreme wing currently in control of the Republican Party still thinks picking this fight is a winner. I hope that’s a topic that will soon get Sosnik’s attention.
Dawn Laguens is Executive Vice President of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.