Can women save the Democrats?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 11:35 AM

Can women save the Democrats?

The gender contours of American politics have been clear for many years. Democrats have long enjoyed a decided advantage among female voters, less so among men. Over the next five weeks, Democrats' hopes of holding the House and Senate may depend on their success in once again rallying those female voters.

Right now, Democrats are doing far better among women than men, but in many places not by enough. In a number of states, men are supporting Republican candidates by significant margins, while women are backing Democratic candidates but not by as much as in some past years.

Frank Newport of the Gallup organization said the gap between men and women this fall is not significantly different from the gap in past elections. But since 2006, when Democrats captured the House and Senate, there has been an overall shift toward Republicans.

Four years ago, on the eve of the 2006 midterms, men were evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats in their voting intentions for the House, while women were Democratic by 22 percentage points. Today, Newport said, 52 percent of men say they plan to vote Republican and 40 percent say they will vote for the Democrat. Women are the opposite: 52 percent Democrat and 40 percent Republican.

CNN released a series of statewide polls last week, showing much the same. In Colorado, Republican challenger Ken Buck led Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet 49 percent to 44 percent among likely voters. Among men, it was Buck 56 percent, Bennet 36 percent. Among women, it was Bennet 52 percent, Buck 41 percent.

In Wisconsin, Republican Ron Johnson led Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold 51 percent to 45 percent. Johnson held a 16-point lead among men, Feingold had a five-point lead among women. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak trailed Republican Pat Toomey in their Senate race by five points, primarily because women were evenly divided while men were backing Toomey.

In Delaware, where Republican Christine O'Donnell shocked the GOP establishment by defeating Rep. Michael Castle in the Senate primary, women are the principal reason O'Donnell now badly trails Democratic nominee Chris Coons. The CNN poll found that, among likely voters, Coons led O'Donnell 55 percent to 39 percent. Men backed Coons by just three points. Women favored him by a 2-to-1 margin (61 vs. 32 percent).

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, is conducting polls for former Republican representative John Kasich, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland (Ohio). Goeas said that in his polls, Kasich is running about even among women but is roughly 10 points ahead among men.

"You're seeing a gender gap, but more in the direction of [Kasich] over-performing with women from where we should be and really over-performing with men compared with where we should be," he said.

In California, Republican Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, is running even with Democratic Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. in their race for governor, according to the latest Field Poll. Men and women are evenly split between Whitman and Brown.

Mark DiCamillo, who directs the poll, said Whitman has kept the race a toss-up, despite Democrats heavily outnumbering Republicans in registration because she has been successful in attracting the votes of women. "The reason Whitman is close is she is really breaking through to traditional Democratic constituencies," he added. "The biggest example is women."

California men, he said, have often divided relatively evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates. The reason Democrats have won so consistently in statewide races is because women have strongly backed the Democrats. "California is a blue state," he said. "It is a Democratic state. Usually there is a double-digit advantage among women for Democrats."

In contrast, Republican Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, is trailing Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in the same Field Poll. Boxer leads among both men and women, although her lead among women is only in the single digits. Fiorina is more conservative than Whitman, which may account for her problem.

"You're not seeing Fiorina cutting into those Democratic constituencies," DiCamillo said.

Part of the Democrats' problem this year is that men have turned against them in big numbers. White, blue-collar men are particularly alienated from the party, according to Democratic strategists.

That puts an extra premium on women. Democrats hoping to hold down losses are pinning their hopes on mobilizing women and say they see evidence that, when sharp contrasts are drawn with the Republican candidate, numbers move in their direction.

But there are obstacles this year. Democrats do better among unmarried women than among married women. But unmarried women have been hit hard by the recession and may be more difficult than usual to motivate. "They're in tough shape, and they're hard to get energized," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

Democrats remember 1994. In that year, an estimated 16 million women who had voted in 1992 did not show up at the polls. That was one of a number of factors behind the GOP landslide that year.

"Our job is to motivate core Democratic women to get out to vote," said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List.

And how much harder is it this fall than in other elections?

"Because of the general enthusiasm gap that we've seen among Democrats already across the board," she said, "it is a concern of all of ours."

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