No one expected the Democrats to do well in the 2014 midterms. But no one expected to see them falling behind so significantly, either – especially among two of their core constituencies, women and millennials.
The Democratic coalition that relied on those two groups for consecutive presidential wins by President Obama assumed that the issue for those groups in the sixth-year midterms would be enthusiasm. Instead, it appears that they have squandered the ground they gained over the last six years with both, largely because of their reliance on the same tired lines that first attracted them to the Democratic banner.
One argument in particular was designed to attract both – the so-called Republican “war on women.” As luck would have it, I happened to be in New Hampshire when the first shot was fired, in a January 2012 Republican primary debate. George Stephanopoulos spent an entire segment out of the blue asking GOP contenders about outlawing birth control, an idea that literally none of them had ever entertained.
Mitt Romney scoffed at Stephanopoulos’ concern, telling him that contraception access “works just fine” and that no one had any intention of interfering with it.
Most observers were mystified about the topic selection – until the Obama administration announced the HHS contraception mandate just days later. The opposition to the mandate on grounds of religious freedom as well as the unnecessary expansion of regulation allowed Democrats to demagogue it as the “war on women.”
Thanks in part to undisciplined Republican candidates, especially Todd Akin in Missouri, the argument gained traction and produced wide gaps in support among millennials and women, especially single women. Those gaps provided the margin of victory for Barack Obama’s narrow re-election over Mitt Romney and Democrats to pick up two seats in the US Senate, even though Democrats had more seats at risk in the election than Republicans.
If the Democrats won the opening battles in the so-called war on women, though, it now appears that they have lost the, well, war. Two new polls on the eve of the midterms make it clear that they have lost more ground than they gained.
Harvard University’s Institute of Politics regularly surveys younger voters, and its results have until recently provided plenty of evidence that Democrats had made deep inroads in the under-30 demographic. This month, however, the data has shifted in the opposite direction. The IOP found that a majority of likely voters in their 2000-plus sample of young Americans want Republicans to control Congress after Tuesday’s elections, 51 percent to 47 percent. This doesn’t come from a sudden fondness for the GOP in Congress, which only scores a 23 percent approval rating; Democrats in Congress do better at 35 percent.
Rather, the issue is disillusionment with Democrats, especially President Obama. His job approval rating is now 43/53 in a sample that voted 53/33 for Obama in 2012. Young voters now express disapproval in almost every phase of his presidency--36 percent approval on the economy, which is their top issue in this survey, 35 percent on foreign policy (second-highest issue), and 37 percent on health care.
In fact, 57 percent disapprove of the Affordable Care Act in this survey, a huge shift from four years ago – perhaps driven by the belated realization that Obamacare relies on sticking them with a huge bill for comprehensive health policies they will hardly ever use.
Most interestingly, when asked an open-ended question about their top issue in this election, contraception never comes up. Only 1 percent mentions abortion, and only 1 percent mentions income inequality. This generation became conscientious objectors in the war on women over the last two years.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a similar decline for Democrats in a critical demographic for their war-on-women rhetoric. Unmarried women have provided a huge advantage to Democrats over the last eight years, as the Post’s Aaron Blake notes, ranging between 25 and 41 points – the latter in the 2008 election that put Obama over the top against John McCain in his first presidential bid.
The HHS contraception mandate issue was designed to have special appeal to single women, and it delivered nearly the same advantage in 2012 as in 2008. Even in a relatively close contest in 2010, the gap was still 25 points.
In the new poll, though, that gap dropped to just five points on the generic Congressional ballot – 48/43. In 2012, support for Democrats topped 60 percent, while the GOP scored only in the mid-30s. Blake points out that The New York Times, Real Clear Politics, and the activist group Women’s Voices Women Vote have all highlighted the necessity of a large advantage in this demographic, which comprises about a quarter of the electorate.
This is not a case of just poor turnout but of actual shift in support -- or at the very least an erosion of loyalty in a very short period of time. Other polls by the Associated Press and Pew Research also show dramatic erosion for Democrats among single women since 2012, even while seeing somewhat larger gaps.
What happened? For one thing, Republican candidates had better message discipline in 2014, depriving Democrats of opportunities for their demagoguery.
The incessant harping on contraception may have finally repelled women who have other concerns, such as the economy and national security, just like the millennials. But perhaps the desperation of Democrats to play this card with the same effectiveness as two years ago finally opened their eyes to the paternalistic attitude that Democrats took in positioning themselves as protectors, which implies that women can’t act on their own behalf.
Ground Zero for that meltdown ended up in Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Mark Udall earned the sobriquet “Mark Uterus” for obsessing on war-on-women issues to the exclusion of practically everything else. Republican challenger Cory Gardner called his bluff by backing proposals to make birth-control pills an over-the-counter purchase, which would greatly reduce cost and improve access for women. Udall fell into the trap by opposing the suggestion as an attack on access.
That pales in comparison to the desperate, last-minute attack on Gardner from pro-abortion group NARAL on Udall’s behalf. The ad features a male voice supposedly explaining in condescending tones to his girlfriend “Sweet Pea” that Gardner had banned all contraception and that birth control is now “on all us guys.”
He also helpfully explains to “Sweet Pea” that Gardner refuses to acknowledge climate change, which “everyone knows is weirding our weather,” because “Sweet Pea” apparently can’t be relied on to follow the election for herself.
Democrats think these voters will relate to “Sweet Pea” and her paternalistic scold of a lover who thinks birth control and climate change are the two biggest issues in their lives. Small wonder, then, that millennials and single women have finally become repelled by the “war on women” demagoguery and exploitative economic policies of Barack Obama, the Democrats, and their allies. No one likes to be taken for a sucker for long.
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