Democrats Couldn't Count on Women for Victories in Midterm 2014 Elections. Will They Learn?

Did Democrats woo women at the expense of young and independent voters?


Sen. Kay Hagan/Facebook

Democrats in many states were counting on women to win election 2014 victories. It seems to have been a bad bet. Liberal Senate candidates who put particular emphasis on issues like birth control and equal pay legislation were roundly defeated by Republican challengers last night. 

The über case here comes out of Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall lost his seat to GOP Rep. Cory Gardner after running heavily on how Gardner would be bad for women. It was a strange choice for one of the few Democratic Senators who could have campaigned on his record of questioning intelligence community abuses. Udall was championed by groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union for his criticism of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, his insistence on declassification of the CIA's post-9/11 interrogation techniques, and his refusal to support National Defense Authorization Act provisions allowing for indefinite detention of American citizens. "He's definitely deviated from the Obama administration on these issues," Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at HRW, told the Huffington Post

Gardner, meanwhile, scores pretty low on support for civil liberties. But in campaign literature and TV ads, Udall largely emphasized his differences from Gardner on social issues, particularly those related to contraception and abortion. He hammered Gardner for previous support of a Colorado personhood amendment and repeatedly suggested that Gardner wanted to ban birth control. 

Despite all this, female voter turnout Tuesday remained stubbornly low in Colorado. This is far from unprecented—in general, women, young adult, and minority voters tend to drop off during non-presidential election years. But this year, Colorado women's turnout was at its lowest point since 1992, according to ABC News. And while unmarried women did lean overwhelmingly Democrat, this much-courted cohort did so at their smallest margin in over 20 years. 

In preliminary exit poll data from CNN, Sen. Udall managed to capture 52 percent of Colorado's women voters, compared to Gardner's 44 percent. But this wasn't enough to make up for Gardner's 17 percent lead among men. And similar dynamics were seen in other Senate races where Democrats had stressed GOP opposition to abortion, health insurance coverage for contraception, legislation meant to address gender pay gaps, and other issues expected to rally women voters. 

In North Carolina, for instance, Republican Thom Tillis beat incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan by just 2 percentage points overall. But he lead by 15 percent among male voters, enough to trump Hagan's 12 percent lead with women. In Alaska, Republican Dan Sullivan won against incumbent Sen. Mark Begich by earning just 2 percent less support from women but 11 percent more support from men. In Iowa, Republican state Rep. Joni Ernst won her new Senate seat with 1 percent less of the female vote and 16 percent more of the male vote.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell kept his seat by wooing both more male and more female voters; he beat challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes by 3 percent among women and 25 percent among men. Arakansas' Tom Cotton came out on top with 10 percent more female supporters than opponent Mark Pryor and 24 percent more male supporters.

Exit poll data shows female voters preferring Democratics by seven percentage points overall, according to the Wall Street Journal. "That was a distinctly better showing than in the latest midterm elections, in 2010, when women broke for the GOP by a percentage point and helped propel Republicans to control of the House," the Journal notes. Yet the gender gap still skewed in Republicans' favor this year, with GOP candidates capturing male voters by 13 percentage points more. 

To be clear, it's unlikely that focusing on supposed women's issues drove male voters away from Democrats—that 13-point male lead Republicans enjoyed is pretty standard fare for midterm elections. And men make up a majority of the Republican party generally. A Pew Research Center Survey from 2012 found 52 percent of GOP or GOP-leaning voters were male, compared to 43 percent of Democrats or Democratic-leaners.  

And there's nothing to say that Democrat's "GOP war on women" rhetoric didn't motivate some female voters who may have otherwise sat this election out. Perhaps without it, we'd have seen even bigger margins of GOP victory in states like North Carolina and Alaska. 

But I'd love to be able to peer into some alternate reality where Democrats like Udall had campaigned on opposition to CIA torture and NSA spying; or had attempted to motivate their minority bases by focusing on issues like those coming out of Ferguson, Missouri; or had hitched their wagon to marijuana legalization in states where it was on the ballot. These are some of the issues that matter most right now to young voters—another group historically absent from midterm voting, with last night being no exception. Though 18- to 29-year-olds make up about a quarter of the U.S. population, they accounted for just 13 percent of voters yesterday. (The reverse is true for seniors, who constitute about 13 percent of the total population but represented 22 percent of the midterm vote.)  

Could campaigns that emphasized opposition to civil-liberties abuses, police brutality, and drug criminalization have captured more ballot-box love from millennials? As we've seen in poll after poll—from Harvard's to Pew Research Center's to our own here at Reason—millennials are massively dissatisfied with traditional partisan options and more likely than any young cohort previously to consider themselves political independents. And those issues are ones not necessarily beholden to a natural partisan divide. A Republican or a Democratic candidate who ran with them could well capture post-party, post-Hope millennial passions (along with older independents, too, of course). 

Instead, both parties keep choosing to run on the most partisan of platforms and dog-whistles. (Democrats more so than Republicans this year, though that's not to the credit of GOP candidates, who largely seemed to run on nothing.) Republicans are still relying on older white men and religious conservatives to carry them. And Democrats keep hoping that if they just remind women and minorities they're On Their Side, Not Like Those Republicans, they don't actually have to have any ideas, do anything, or stand for anything. 

It's a great way to turn out exactly the people and constituencies who would vote for you anyways. And sometimes an OK way to eek out your own party's dominance. It's not a sound strategy if you have any hope of actually affecting change, or turning politics into anything but the sad, silly spectacle it is currently. But I suppose that's never the real goal anyway…

Funnily enough, many on the left are now dismissing last night's Democratic losses as a mere side effect of more male, white, and over-45 voters—aka more Republicans—showing up at the polls. (See the closing paragraph here for one fine example.) It's an effective bit of ass-covering on their part, I guess, but I feel sorry for the future of the left if any of them actually believe it convincing. "The excuse is, itself, just a restatement of the problem," as Ezra Klein writes.

The fact that less registered Democrats, less millennials, and less women turned up to vote is neither random nor some sort of natural, immutable force. It is evidence that what the Democratic Party and candidates are doing is not working. And if the best their pundits can come up with afterward is, "well, that's how voter turnout goes," we could be in for a GOP majority for much longer than anyone expects.