The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion More women are tuning out politics — a danger sign for Democrats in Virginia and beyond

A campaign volunteer goes over voter turnout numbers at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Va. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Democrats are sweating the Virginia governor’s race, which is turning out to be tighter than expected. But while President Biden’s sagging poll numbers have become a drag on the Democratic nominee, former governor Terry McAuliffe, in his bid against Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin, there is another danger sign that could have serious implications for the party on Nov. 2 and into the 2022 election cycle.

A raft of evidence suggests that female voters, whose engagement and activism fueled the gains that Democrats made during Donald Trump’s presidency, are increasingly tuning out politics. In one survey conducted in May by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, nearly half of women in key swing states said they were “paying less attention to what happens in Washington” than they were when Trump was in the White House. This was particularly true among female Biden voters who are independents, under the age of 35, college graduates and city dwellers. Focus groups that American Bridge 21st Century conducted in August with women in Pennsylvania and Arizona found much the same thing.

This sense of growing political ennui among women comes through in focus groups, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “People are exhausted,” she explains. “We have people deliberately saying, ‘I am just taking a break — enough.’ ” While enactment of a draconian Texas law that all but outlaws abortion in the state stirred women briefly, that frisson of anger has dissipated among many, Lake says. “Voters nationwide decided Texas isn’t going to happen in you-name-the-state.”

Joshua Estevan Ulibarri, a partner in Lake’s firm who is polling for Virginia Del. Hala S. Ayala, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, says this disengagement is also symptomatic of a broader problem for the party this year: “Definitely, Democrats are less motivated than Republicans.”

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In focus groups he has held for the state Democratic Party, Ulibarri found that Black women — the most loyal segment of the Democratic base — were also the most cynical, saying, “It doesn’t matter who we elect, it’s all the same.” This exasperation, Ulibarri adds, intensifies the need for the party to deliver on its promises of better child care, paid time off, education and other items that are top priorities for many in its base. “Our base voters are looking for a little more work to be done in Washington,” he says.

Four years ago, Virginia’s governor’s race was an early indicator of how crucial newly energized female voters would become to a party that was still reeling from Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss in the 2016 presidential election.

Although exit polls showed turnout in the commonwealth pretty evenly split between male and female voters in 2017, the way they cast their ballots was not. Victorious Democrat Ralph Northam won female voters by a margin of 22 points; men tilted narrowly Republican. Of the 15 seats that Democrats flipped in the House of Delegates that year, 11 were won by female candidates replacing male incumbents.

The apparent fading of political intensity among Democratic voters in general, and women in particular, is understandable. Trump may still hold sway over the Republican Party, but he is no longer in the White House. Stressed out over the lingering covid-19 pandemic and an uncertain economy, many feel the need to focus more on their day-to-day challenges at home.

All of which presents an imperative to work harder to reach those voters and develop a more effective Democratic message, says Jessica Floyd, president of American Bridge 21st Century. Floyd says her organization has spent around $2 million to date on ads in Virginia touting the benefits of the Biden agenda. She argues that the party needs to do a better job of acquainting its most loyal voters with what’s in the major pieces of legislation that are stalled on Capitol Hill — such as extending the child tax credits that have taken effect under Biden — rather than squabbling over the price tag of the package.

Off-year elections bring fewer voters to the polls than contests where the White House is at stake, and are generally won by the side that does a better job of turning out its base. Virginia “will be a really important indicator of where relative enthusiasm is going into 2022,” says Michael Podhorzer, top political strategist for the AFL-CIO. “That’s the whole ballgame.”

Keep an eye in particular on whether female voters turn up for Democrats as they have in the past few election cycles. Right now, it appears the party has plenty of reason to worry.