Women May Decide the Toughest Senate Races

2245209899_49ce7e9aab_zPolitical pollsters don’t always agree on the direction major races are headed. But there’s one thing polls have shown again and again this election season: Women could decide the biggest Senate races in the country.

According to an analysis of polls from the National Journal, gender gaps—the measurable difference between how women and men vote—in the tightest Senate races, including New Hampshire, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, are unprecedented and could lead to Democratic victories. In the past, gender gaps have hovered around 13 points; this year, however, they’re closer to 20 points or more in Senate and gubernatorial races, according to the National Journal’s analysis.

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In the North Carolina race between Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and Rep. Thom Tillis (R), for example, a recent Elon poll found a significant difference between men’s and women’s candidate preferences: 52 percent of women surveyed support Hagan, compared to just 38 percent of men. Tillis has support from 33 percent of women, compared to 50 percent of men.

“Women have never played a bigger role in elections,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock told the National Journal. “In races across the country—and especially in North Carolina—the focus is on women’s issues, women candidates and women voters.”

In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall leads Rep. Cory Gardner (R) with women by 52 to 35 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Udall has been campaigning hard on reproductive rights issues, especially since Gardner supported a controversial personhood amendment that would have banned abortion and some of the most common forms of birth control. Gardner has since attempted to walk his position back by proposing that birth control be available over the counter. However, critics have pointed out that this would remove contraception from insurance coverage, leaving women to cover the full cost.

Democratic candidates have been working to drive up support among women voters throughout their campaigns—especially as the election draws nearer—stumping on issues women care about, such as education, equal pay and violence against women. Access to reproductive care has been a critical issue too, and given Republicans’ anti-abortion antics this year, it’s no surprise women are favoring Democrats by a wide margin—their lives could literally depend on it.

Republican pollsters have been nervously watching the gender-related poll results roll in. But some are cautiously optimistic about what the Democratic Party’s standing with men means for their candidates.

Says Nicole McCleskey, a pollster with the conservative Public Opinion Strategies, “Typically people say we’re in bad shape with women, but it’s also that Democrats are not doing well with men. That’s why the gap is exploding like it is.”

And some pollsters caution that so-called “security moms”—women who vote Republican out of concern for national security issues—could narrow or level out the gender gap and pull the win from Democratic hands.

Reading the polls this year has become trickier. Pollsters themselves told FiveThirtyEight—the website of election forecaster Nate Silver—that this year’s poll numbers are more inaccurate than ever. Fewer people are responding to polls this year, and they say it’s the difficulty of predicting midterm election turnout that’s making the numbers so unreliable.

Experienced pollsters also bemoaned a rise in newbie polling organizations. Said Darrel Rowland, who conducts The Columbus Dispatch‘s poll,  “Many are attempting to use Internet surveys with untested methodologies to determine likely voters. As often happens to pioneers, there could be some grim results.”

Economist David Rothschild, who specializes in polling and election predictions, warns that polls can become self-fulfilling prophecies—what he has dubbed the “bandwagon effect”—when they’re over-reported by media. He wrote in a Huffington Post blog:

The predictions of the polls come to pass because the polls not only measure public opinion but also influence public opinion and engagement. … The main reason that people conform to majority opinion in the political domain is that they believe there is information about the quality of the candidates or policies to be learned from mass support.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority (and publisher of Ms.)—who was the first to prove the existence of the gender gap in 1980—cautions that polling firms are often partisan or the polls are sponsored by conservative business interests, so voters must read the polls critically. Calling polls “political warfare,” she warns that it’s critical to know who’s behind the numbers and what their motivations might be.

And, says Smeal, though current polls might not accurately predict the outcome on election night, we do know that gender gaps have made a historic difference in electing candidates who advocate for women’s rights. Plus, she says, it’s feminists who are driving those gender gaps. In the Winter 2013 issue of Ms., Smeal explained how the “feminist factor” won the 2012 election for President Obama:

…voters’ views on feminism correlated with their choice of candidates. Among feminist women, some two-thirds (64 percent) voted for Obama, as did 54 percent of feminist-identified men.

Fifty-five percent of women voters surveyed in 2012 identified as feminists, and it’s safe to assume—given the rising popularity of the label—that even more women identify with the f-word now. If this year’s voters mimic their 2012 counterparts, it will be the feminist factor that could be decisive.

Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics and an expert on the gender gap, concurs that feminism plays a huge role in electing Democratic candidates. In the 2014 edition of Gender and Elections, she wrote,

The contemporary women’s movement has altered the way most women in the United States see themselves and their life options. … Women influenced by feminism appear more likely than either men or other women to express attitudes sympathetic to those who are disadvantaged and in need and consequently more predisposed to support the Democratic Party.

Be sure to cast your ballot on election day—whichever way you vote!

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user kristin_a licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.