By Rosalind S. Helderman and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 24, 2009
If you live in Virginia and you're planning to vote for governor in November, if you happen to be between ages 18 and 44 and you also just happen to be a woman, gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds has something he'd like to talk to you about.
It has to do with a certain graduate school thesis written by Deeds's opponent, Robert F. McDonnell, in 1989. McDonnell wrote about how to use public policy to strengthen the traditional family and said that working women and feminism were "detrimental" to the family.
McDonnell has said that some of his views have changed since he wrote the paper and cited his working wife and daughters as proof that he does, indeed, support women in the workforce. But Deeds launched an ad blitz this week to publicize the issue, some featuring Virginia women looking into the camera and insisting that McDonnell's record as a lawmaker shows otherwise.
A Washington Post poll released Sunday showed that the thesis has had some impact on the race already, and that there is quite a bit of room left for Deeds to run with the issue.
Take a look at some pretty striking numbers about younger voters, 18 to 44, and that reality seems clear.
Overall, the poll showed Deeds just behind McDonnell, by four percentage points, a marked change from August, when Post polling had Deeds behind by 15 points among likely voters.
Like other voting groups, younger likely voters have moved sharply. In August, voters 18 to 44 broke for McDonnell, with 54 percent favoring the Republican and 37 percent siding with the Democrat. Now, likely voters in that age group are essentially tied -- 50 percent for McDonnell and 49 percent for Deeds.
Why the change? Like the movement in the survey overall, a lot of the shift is about the fairer sex.
Among women younger than 45, Deeds now holds a commanding 57 to 43 percent lead. Among men, the numbers are virtually reversed: McDonnell 57, Deeds 41.
According to the poll, younger women are far less likely than men to agree with some of what McDonnell wrote in his thesis about social issues.
Nearly six in 10 women ages 18 to 44 said it would be worse for the country if "men and women went back to the traditional roles they had in the 1950s." Just a third of men in the age group agreed. Further, 52 percent of women said they feel strongly that it would make things worse, while only a quarter of the men in the age group agreed.
Four in 10 (41 percent) younger male voters said it wouldn't make a difference.
More than six in 10 women ages 18 to 44 said they think abortion should be legal in all or more cases. Only a slim majority of men, 51 percent, agreed.
Younger men and women were more alike on how government policies should treat homosexuality. Twenty-six percent of women in the age group said it should be viewed as acceptable, with 21 percent of men in agreement. At the other side of the issue, 10 percent of women said government should discourage homosexuality, and 13 percent of men said so. About two-thirds across the sexes say government should not get involved in the issue.
Women younger than 45 gave Deeds a 25-point advantage on handling issues of special concern to women. Among younger men, that measure was about even, with 44 percent giving the advantage to Deeds and 40 percent to McDonnell.
Younger women were also more likely than men to say Deeds is about right ideologically and that McDonnell would rely too heavily on his religious beliefs in policymaking.
All of these numbers illustrate why the Deeds campaign this week took a big gamble that women will not abide McDonnell's writings, launching $750,000 worth of advertising on the issue.
Can it work?
Here are the numbers that probably have Deeds's ad buyers most interested.
Two additional things are true about younger women, per the Post poll: They are more apt than men to say the thesis makes them less likely to vote for McDonnell. And they are less likely than men to say they know much about it.
Among younger female voters, 38 percent said the thesis makes them less likely to back McDonnell. Twenty-seven percent said it made them "much less likely" to do so.
But nearly half of women in the age group -- 49 percent -- said they know hardly anything or nothing about it. Only 30 percent said they knew a great deal or a good amount about it. That's compared with 43 percent of younger men.
If the Deeds campaign has its way, by the time Nov. 3 rolls around, every young woman in the state will have heard about McDonnell's graduate school thesis.
Television viewers should brace themselves for the onslaught.
The Post poll included interviews with 1,003 randomly selected Virginians likely to vote in the gubernatorial election, including users of conventional and cellular telephones. The results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are larger.