Downcast Democrats have generated a boomlet of optimism in the last few days. Last week’s Gallup results put the Dems an amazing one point ahead on who voters would prefer generically for Congress—the second such showing in the last three weeks, indicating they’re not dead yet. The New York Times ran an article about how the Democrats have a fundraising edge in some tight races. And on Thursday, the Democrats released a bunch of internal polls which purport to show that they can defend their control of Congress. This despite the steady drumbeat of polls showing that their 2008 miracle voters—the young and the nonwhite—are so not interested in picking the Congress as they were in picking the president.
I hate to be a (Democratic) party pooper, but here’s the next piece of bad news. Guess who’s not coming out to vote? White women. The enthusiasm among all women is down, but Gallup shows that white women are the least enthusiastic of all the major demographic groups.
Pundits, including most recently Politico, are baffled by the distaff disaffection: “But polls offer few answers to why women haven’t responded to the economic downturn and the rise of the conservative grassroots by bringing the kind of energy to Democratic campaigns that they did in 2008 and that conservative men are exhibiting this year.”
Exclusive data prepared at The Daily Beast’s request sheds some light. Gallup conducted its regular weekly survey of 1,750 adults (1,500 registered voters)—then, for the period between August 1 and September 22, ran the data controlling for race and gender. The result: A dismal 27 percent of white female registered voters expressed excitement about the contest, compared to 36 percent of black men and women and 40 percent of white men. It is fair to say that the white women’s numbers are not depressed by indifference among the almost entirely white Republican women. At least in June, Gallup was finding that the Republican women were the most enthusiastic of the registered female voters. It’s the independent women (21 percent!) and the Democratic women (24 percent) who aren’t revved up about the coming midterms.
Asked to interpret the data, Gallup’s Frank Newport said that “men are more likely to be Republican than women are, and Republicans in general are more enthused than Democrats this year.”
Remember the PUMAs, whose motto was Party Unity My Ass? They were the supposedly angry white women (the horror) so pissed off by Hillary Clinton’s defeat they were going elect John McCain? The PUMAs were sort of lost in the pixie dust storm of the Obama election. I wonder if we declared them an endangered species too soon? There were glimpses that all might not be well with white women in the exit polls even then. Turnout was up in 2008, but white women as a percentage of the electorate shrank a couple of points. The percentage of white men stayed the same, and nonwhites, both men and women, voted in larger percentages in 2008 than 2004. White women vote Republican, just like white men do, but they did give Obama the benefit of the traditional gender gap, supporting him more than the white men did. They didn’t like him nearly as well as they had liked Al Gore, though.
In her indispensable new book about women and the 2008 election, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rebecca Traister outed me as having a WWHD (What Would Hillary Do) bracelet, which I take out when the White House agrees to exclude women’s abortions from the new high-risk health-care pools or when Michelle Obama takes her Givenchy outfits to the Costa Brava for a little mid-recession respite from gardening. So I cannot help thinking that there are a lot of other women who responsibly voted for the Democrat hoping for the best but who were not firmly attached to the whole undertaking.
• Kirsten Powers: Obama’s Empathy Deficit • Gail Sheehy: Obama’s Fire Sale Well, who needs white women anyway? They haven’t broken Democratic in years. A big piece of the “gender gap” for the Democrats is because the category “women voters” is more nonwhite than the men are, and nonwhites vote heavily Democratic. So the gender gap is partly a race/gender gap. The rest of the gender gap is due to white men’s robust fealty to the Republican Party. Although white women do not vote Republican in such large numbers as men do, in 2008 Barack Obama would have won the popular vote, even if the white women had voted exactly the same as their white male counterparts. He held his losses with the pale males to 41 percent, and the huge majorities among nonwhite voters did the rest.
Here’s why white women matter. Pundits like the authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority predict that a growing nonwhite population—combined with the clear-sighted fealty of the big-brained voters of the postindustrial economy (read, young white guys in chinos) and the conventional gender gap—means that Republicans would soon lose their electoral dominance. But the 2010 election seems to indicate their predictions were either wrong or way premature. Obama’s majorities were probably more anomalous than transformative: a fragile coalition of marginally less rabid white men, a few more dutiful white women, and overwhelming nonwhite support.
It’s the independent women (21 percent!) and the Democratic women (24 percent) who aren’t revved up about the coming midterms.
But that combination of holding Democratic losses among whites and unprecedented support among nonwhites did not even last two years. In June 2010, when Gallup combined the preferences of the 25 percent of the registered voter sample who are nonwhite with the 75 percent who are white, the Democratic losses among white voters had gone up and the support among nonwhites had gone down so much that the Democrats ended up trailing the Republicans overall 47 percent to 45 percent.
Until the demographics shift, decades from now, Democrats need more reliable white votes. They have been trolling for them among white men at least since Bill Clinton pulled the party to the right 20 years ago. White women gave a hint of what they might do for the Democrats in 2000, voting 48 percent for Al Gore, and producing a part of his popular victory.
But the Democrats have never made a concerted effort to solve their minority status by ginning up the female vote. Regardless of Traister’s sunny subtitle—"The Election That Changed Everything for American Women”—the Democratic primary of 2007-8 may not have helped matters. If you read no other part of Traister’s book, read the chapter, The Boys on the Bus, about the shit liberal women had to listen to from their friends and boyfriends—the heretical nature of Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign and their implication in allowing their gender agenda to interfere with the world-altering candidacy of the man who was “the bomb.” As soon as Traister sent out an inquiry about bad behavior, her email inbox filled to capacity. Even the Obama supporters in her female cohort began “calling me out of earshot of their Obama-loving boyfriends,” to complain bitterly about the sexism of their significant others, to say nothing of the “hours” the women who even veered to neutral “spent... defending Clinton.” I was interested at the number of female reviewers who worried that Traister’s book would cause them to experience post-traumatic stress disorder and flash back to those gender-conflicted months.
Like Traister’s friend sneaking away from her boyfriend to phone, women really don’t want all those boyfriends and friends and commenters reenacting the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan with herself as the first one off the landing craft. Again. So, like real pumas, the women who waited to see are just tiptoeing away, catlike, from the battle.
Why are women less enthusiastic than men? It’s not that women don’t give as much thought to the election as men do; Gallup’s figures on this score for men and women are about the same for previous midterm years.
Indeed, the Democrats still have a last-ditch chance to attract the crucial margin of white female voters. Since women poll as more concerned with childrens’ issues than men do, the recent activation of health care for children would be a good start. And Newport, the Gallup editor, says that all the disaffection with the Democrats among white women doesn’t necessarily mean a boon for the GOP. “We don’t see a change in the generic ballot,” he says. “That is, women aren’t suddenly moving toward Republican candidates. Our latest numbers show women 11 points in the Democrats’ favor and men 11 points in the Republicans’ favor. Republicans haven’t brought women into their camp.”
But time flies. The white women didn’t boycott the election of 2008 as some hyperventilating commentators predicted. But if the Gallup polls are right, the Democrats may get a chance to see what it’s like to run for office when women are staying home.
Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.