Women emerging as crucial swing voters; Democrats’ edge is in doubt as Nov. 2 elections near

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, AP
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Women a key on Nov. 2; Dems’ gender edge closing?

MONROE, N.Y. — They’re worried about putting food on the table and paying the bills. They’re frustrated that more hasn’t changed since President Barack Obama was elected. And they feel like nobody in Washington — Republican or Democrat — has a clue what they’re up against.

America’s women, who typically are more likely to vote Democratic, have emerged as a key swing voting bloc that could sway this fall’s midterm congressional elections. And an Associated Press-GfK poll suggests that those women most apt to turn out in November are shifting away from the Democrats.

The poll found that on the surface, among registered voters, women preferred Democrats to Republicans by 12 points — about the same margin by which they voted in the 2006 and 2008 elections, according to exit polls.

But among women most likely to vote on Nov. 2, the advantage shrank dramatically, to five points. That matches the edge women gave Democrats in 1994, when a Republican wave swept Congress.

The mixed feelings are evident here in New York’s Hudson Valley, where Nicole Rogers, a Democrat who voted for Obama two years ago, has yet to decide whether she’ll support her congressman, John Hall. He is one of scores of Democrats in tight re-election contests in a potentially grim year for his party, which is trying to stave off Republican efforts to seize control of the House and possibly the Senate.

“My concern as a working mother is the economy, the future of health benefits and education,” said Rogers, a 42-year-old from Highland Mills who works for an insurance company.

She counts her family lucky to have two incomes in these tough times — her husband works at nearby IBM — but she’s finding herself doing more with less while her taxes rise.

“It hasn’t changed. I mean, it’s been two years and there’s no stimulus, there’s nothing. People are getting frustrated and rightly so,” she said. Rogers said she’ll vote for whoever can show her a plan for turning things around.

“They need to tell us what’s going to change — how are you going to fix this?”

Unlike many men interviewed in this district north of New York City, Rogers doesn’t sound angry or spiteful as she describes her concerns and what will determine her vote Nov. 2. She’s just dismayed — and not sure what to do about it.

The same is true for Meg Robstad, a 55-year-old unemployed school administrator from Yorktown. She’s as disillusioned as anyone about the state of the economy, which put her out of work and has led two of her adult children to move back home.

But Robstad, an independent who supported Hall in the past, said he’s done nothing to offend her and she can’t see what good would come from getting rid of him.

“They’ve all been ineffectual, and that’s why you want to vote out anybody that’s there,” Robstad said as she headed for an afternoon workout. “We’re really stuck. We’re not getting better, and they haven’t done enough to make it happen.”

The AP-GfK poll and other national surveys show a lack of excitement among women that has some Democrats worried that they’ll stay home this fall, and Republicans hopeful that they can close the gender gap that has traditionally worked to their disadvantage.

Still, pollsters in both parties say female voters have not yet tuned in to the campaigns, and are highly persuadable.

“They’re not watching along at home and screaming at the television, so in that sense there’s not as much intensity” said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster who has tracked women’s opinions. “But there’s this myth that women aren’t voting, and it’s not true.”

Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster who has worked with Omero this year on a polling and focus group project studying “Walmart moms” — mothers of children under 18 who shop at the superstore — said she believes they’ll turn out.

“Candidates ignore them at their peril,” Bratty said. “They’re the quintessential swing voter. They’re planning to vote, but they’re not paying close attention just yet, and they haven’t locked in to who they’re going to vote for.”

The Walmart moms, Omero and Bratty found, make up as much as 17 percent of the voting population and are more likely to be registered Democrats, but unlike women overall they’re leaning toward voting Republican this year.

However, they’re less committed than those who say they’re voting for a Democrat, Bratty said, and there’s ample opportunity for Democratic candidates to appeal to them.

“They are just so skeptical that any of their elected officials are doing anything to help them. They’re jaded by the partisan bickering,” Bratty said. “They really feel that their elected officials are out of touch. It’s kind of, ‘These people have no idea what I go through every day.’”

In New York’s 19th Congressional District, a sprawling region that includes picturesque suburbs lining the Hudson River, middle-class commuter towns and rural stretches, second-termer Hall is facing strong headwinds in his race against Republican Nan Hayworth, an ophthalmologist and political newcomer.

Obama won only narrowly here in a strong year for Democrats, and a recent poll suggested voters who have lost confidence in the president are turning against their congressman, too.

“I think they’re impatient,” Hall said of his constituents during an interview. “I think they’re frustrated, and so am I. We all would have hoped and expected to be out of the recession and on our way toward a more robust recovery and have a lower unemployment number than we have now. At the same time, the steps that we’ve taken and that I voted for I think are essential to keeping it from being worse.”

Hall, who in life before politics was a frontman of the 1970s rock band Orleans — famous for the song “Still the One” — said voters will get what they vote for this year, and he seems resigned to the fact that they may not buy his explanations for the votes he’s cast for the economic stimulus, the health care law and the auto bailout, among others.

“People will either believe me and agree with me or not,” Hall says. He talks at length about the essential projects he’s brought home to the Hudson Valley and portrays his opponent as too far right for the district, citing her endorsement by the conservative Club for Growth, a group that advocates partial privatization of Social Security.

Hayworth is running on a limited-government agenda that includes an extensive list of income and investment tax cuts and a pledge to cut spending — including a promise not to earmark any federal money for projects in the district.

“People understand that for the few crumbs that may fall from the federal table in District 19, we pay out millions more,” Hayworth said in an interview. Voters hearing her plan “accept it, they embrace it, because what I want to see happen instead is for them to keep more of what they own.”

She doesn’t consider herself a tea party candidate, but says she’s a member of the Hudson Valley Patriots and shares their belief that government has intruded too much into people’s lives. She often tells voters she wants “the hand of the federal government to be light upon you.”

“I do think we’re going to have a big Republican wave, and it does feel as though this is our chance to honor the model of our founding fathers,” Hayworth said. “Very few people look at what’s going on now and say, ‘Yeah, I want more of that.’”

That’s true of Jennifer Trimmer, a 36-year-old single mom who lost her job managing a retail store in May. On her way into Walmart here last week, she called the economic situation she and the country face “a super-massive disaster.”

“I believe it’s going to take more time to turn it around. I wake up every day thinking I would hate to be in (Obama’s) shoes,” says Trimmer, who usually votes Democratic.

She’s thought about backing a Republican this year, but says there’s nothing to be gained from throwing the Democrats out.

“I just kind of feel like if we get them out of there and put someone else new in, it’s still going to be the same problem. It’s not like it happened overnight.”

Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

will not be displayed