As the clock ticks closer to the 2014 midterm election, horse races and political anxiety mounts across the country (at least for those bothering to watch), observers and campaign strategists are bending over backwards to answer what they believe is the key to winning this cycle: How will women vote? Yet, despite their larger mainstream absence from that discussion, observers are also beginning to look very closely at how women of color — and more specifically African-American women — will be voting.
“As their numbers increase and their participation grows, women of color will increasingly have the chance to sway electoral results, influence which candidates run and win, and play a greater role in shaping the policy agenda,” observed Center for American Progress fellow Maya Harris in a recent research note. “This new reality becomes apparent when one considers that women of color are the fastest-growing segment of the country’s largest voting bloc: women.”
The question over women in general is coming up in a considerable amount of back-and-forth banter between Democrats and Republicans as they battle for control of Capitol Hill Tuesday. While critics will cringe at the habit of what they see as pollsters and pundits “Balkanizing” and over-segmenting American voters into blocs of competing electoral interests, the campaigns themselves are forced to micro-target in a cycle where the voter pickings are expected to be slim. Surveys indicate only 15 percent of the population is truly paying attention to the barrage of campaign ads and political reporting on one of the more heated elections in some time.
“Based on modest levels of voter interest found in most recent surveys, 2014 may be a low turnout year — at least, that is the way it looks,” noted Pew research director Andrew Kohut. “But there is not a statistical model using the results of surveys taken days before the election to predict exactly what the level of turnout will be.”
As a result, candidates are scrambling to pick up all the votes they can get.
Enter women. There is strong reason for both parties to clamor for female votes in tight Senate and gubernatorial races as the voting gender gap has widened since the 1980s. The female population is not only larger than the male population by a few percentage points, but it votes more, too. In the 2012 election, nearly 64 percent of women voted compared to less than 60 percent of men, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics. Those gaps appear significantly higher, as well, in age groups between 18 to 44 years. Younger men just aren’t paying as much attention to the political landscape or don’t feel as vested.
Many women do, perhaps driven by the direct impact of policy changes in health, education and the relentless attack on safety-net programs by lawmakers. And the scope of issues, according to experts, are much more varied than the go-to political reflex on abortion or reproductive rights as suggested by the tone of campaigns.
“So-called women’s issues aren’t limited to abortion and contraception and Republican candidates appear to be banking on Democrats only campaigning for women’s votes by talking about reproductive rights,” observed Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill. “Women as a group care even more about economic issues, especially paid leave, equal pay for equal work and the minimum wage.
“When is an issue the focus of a campaign because it has the potential to affect the well-being of a large number of people, and when is it being somewhat cynically exploited for its political appeal to a particular voting bloc but without much substantive merit?”
But while women at-large care about the bread and butter issues, women of color are disproportionately impacted and damaged by them as inequities persist. When wages are low, Black women’s pay is always lower. When local education systems are crumbling, Black women — by and large — must walk their kids to the worse schools. When access to quality healthcare is limited, many Black women can barely find access at all or have no way of paying for it. Democratic strategists seem vaguely aware of this or are being nudged by aligned activists about it, desperate to galvanize what is expected to be a sharply deflated Black vote Tuesday.
“The facts are African-American women have an unemployment rate of 9 percent versus the national rate [of] around 5 percent,” said Chanelle Hardy, senior vice president of policy at the National Urban League.
Hardy suggested economic issues will definitely be front and center for Black women even as candidates spar over airwaves in a pitched war over reproductive rights as the race for women votes heats up.
“Our median wealth is $100 and half of us have zero or negative wealth,” she said. “Only a third of us own our homes, and while we are six times more likely to start a business than anyone else, small businesses have an 80 percent failure rate.”
Yet, out of fear of alienating white voters or giving ammunition to an enthusiastic (and much, much whiter Republican base), messaging from candidates on the stump is rather guarded on issues tailored for Black women. Even as President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are being deployed on the campaign trail in key states like Georgia, Maryland, Connecticut and Illinois for major Senate or gubernatorial races, many observers have argued it’s mainly Black celebrity optics rather than substance.
Still, if any voting bloc matters for Democrats Tuesday, it will be Black women. Any conversation about the power of the African-American vote that day, if it shows up, should be prefaced by whether or not Black women are expected to bother with a trip to the polls. And as any number of voter ID or voter suppression laws kick in, particularly in states like Georgia where unpredictable races are down to the wire, observers are extremely worried Black voters energized in 2008 and 2012 will not only be tuned-out by an off-cycle but discouraged by too much poll-taxed confusion and bureaucracy imposed by draconian voter process measures.
“It is a sad day when a court shows such a lack of concern for the disfranchisement of citizens who are eligible and eager to vote,” said Lawyers’ Committee President Barbara Arnwine when she reacted to a Fulton County Superior Court judge’s order denying relief in a lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp that would have corrected the absence of thousands of voters from state voter registration rolls. “Our sole concern is ensuring that everyone can exercise their fundamental right to vote without being stonewalled by their own officials.”
While advocates nervously watch what Republican-led voter suppression strategies will do to the electorate, campaign strategists worry about the level of Black voter turnout. African-American female voter turnout, which leads that bloc, is projected to drop by more than 34 percent Nov. 4, the sharpest decrease of participation among any women-of-color demographic. It will be much lower than reduced white women voting at nearly 24 percent, and white men reduced at 20 percent.
That will be extremely challenging for Democrats, especially since Black women voters were out in full force during the 2012 election, many reportedly in reaction to voter suppression laws. Not only was the percentage of Black women voting during President Obama’s re-election bid five percentage points higher than white women, but it was 10 percentage points higher than white men. Black women exercised a voting participation rate of more than 70 percent in 2012 — with their overall participation rate increasing by more than 10 percentage points since the 2000 presidential election.
While she believes Black women will turn out strong, Durham, N.C., elected official and activist Danielle Adams lamented an “election [where] I have no one to fight for because there are no candidates on my ballot fighting for me.”
Citing Sen. Kay Hagan’s (D-N.C.) tough re-election battle against Republican Thom Tillis, Adams noted Hagan “has been broadcasting commercials featuring women of ‘diverse’ backgrounds talking about how she has led the fight to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict reproductive rights and intrude on the abilities of women to make personal choices with their health care providers.”
“However, Black female voters don’t have the luxury to be so single focused,” said Adams. “Because of the opportunity gaps that so heavily impact Black children, Black mothers prioritize the fight for education equality. From an individual perspective, Black women carry a disproportionate share of student loan debt, earn less than white males with a high school diploma and have higher unemployment rates than white females — creating a cycle of debt that trickles over into other aspects of life.”