This November, one constituency – normally loyal, normally liberal, normally far more likely to turn out at the polls – is proving critical. This year, it seems, the support of women voters is very much in play.
And no one knows that more keenly than President Obama: if he doesn’t manage to win them back, he’s heading for trouble in 2012. So there’s a new, somewhat urgent message from the White House team – that the administration’s economic reforms have been good for women and good for the economy, from small business programmes to health-care reform.
As part of his swing through four western states this week, Obama has been reaching out to female voters at one of his home-style “backyard” events. At the home of the Foss family in Seattle, he told local women the Democrats had been good for them – and the economy.
Later he held a mass rally for Senator Patty Murray, famously elected in 1992 as a “mom in tennis shoes” – telling the crowd: “We believe in a country where we say: ‘I am my sister’s keeper’.”
Obama has also been getting leading women from his administration out on TV and radio to push out his message, along with the self-styled “mom-in-chief”, First Lady Michelle, who’s been out on the campaign trail in her own right.
To back it all up, his National Economic Council has produced a 32-page report citing dozens of policies that it says have been good for women. The very first bill that President Obama signed, it points out, was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. In a conference call to reporters – Valerie Jarrett, a top presidential adviser, claimed that the White House had helped “millions of American women not only survive during this recession, but begin to make progress while the economy continues to recover”.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Democrats’ “enthusiasm gap” as support for both the party and the president himself continues to flag. Young people, black voters, women – they all helped propel Obama into the White House in 2008. Now, it seems, they’re either unmotivated or undecided.
A Bloomberg poll last week found 60 per cent of women voters who went with Obama in ’08 either support him less – or say they now don’t back him at all. That’s a much higher percentage than the electorate as a whole.
And in swing states around the country, that kind of statistic is in danger of killing the Democrats’ chances. In House races – where the Democrats are widely tipped to lose dozens of seats – women’s support for the party has usually been, on average, 9 points higher than their support for the Republicans. Four years ago the margin was 12 points: this time, though, the parties are evenly split.
Women are more worried about the state of the economy; and polls show a majority of women don’t approve of Obama’s handling of the issue. The Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the Washington Post that “they do not think the administration’s economic policies are working for their families, and worry about the priorities of this administration, and wonder if they get it”.
Experts say the way the recession has mapped out means that men were affected first: industries such as construction and manufacturing suffered the initial job cuts, and now it’s spread to the public sector – which means more women are facing redundancy. According to research by the New York Times, single mothers and black and Hispanic women have been particularly badly hit by the downturn, suffering the worst unemployment levels for 25 years.
Some of the Obama stimulus cash has been spent on preventing any further job losses in areas such as teaching – but, says Professor Mary King from Portland State: “Yes, there was an impact, but not so big that people perceive it. They don’t realise what would’ve happened if that spending hadn’t occurred.”
Despite the apparent disillusion among women voters, it seems women candidates are making plenty of running. Call it the Sarah Palin effect, but the would-be politicians capturing the public imagination – or, at the very least, a lot of the airtime – are the likes of the Tea Party supporters Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle – who famously told her opponent, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to “man up” during a recent debate.
Then there’s an ultra conservative who’s eight months pregnant, a wrestling executive . . . and a 28-year-old Democratic hopeful called Krystal Ball, who delivered a feisty defence of her right to run for office, after pictures showing her sucking a dildo were published on the internet.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the unexpectedly large number of close races this year, which means all sorts of candidates are suddenly making the running who’d never have been in with a chance in a less typical year.
Or perhaps – after her unsuccessful bid for the White House back in 2008 – Hillary Clinton’s “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” did help put women on the road to success, after all.
Felicity Spector is chief writer and American politics expert for Channel 4 News.