Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Women's Power at the Polls

By Margaret McGranePublished November 9, 2014

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With the 2016 election looming, both Democrats and Republicans are employing a variety of tactics to win the over female voters.
By Maggie McGrane, 11/9/2014


Women outnumber men among registered voters, representing 81.7 million potential votes to men's 71.4 million. Not only do women represent the majority of the American constituency, they also wield a collective estimated $5 trillion dollars annually in purchasing power (Lake & Conway). The influence of their voting bloc could be decisive in the upcoming 2016 elections, especially with the very real possibility of seeing one or more women on the ballot for the presidency.

The first step in winning women's votes is to glean a greater understanding of their general attitudes about policy and behavior at the polls. Extensive research has been done in regards to the contemporary issues that contribute to the gender voting gap between men and women. The Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University found that generally women are more likely than men to favor a more activist role for government, stricter gun control, legal abortion without restrictions, same-sex marriage, and programs guaranteeing health care. This explains why women are more likely to vote for Democratic nominees, even when a Republican woman is the main opposition.  

It would be naïve to discuss the female voting bloc holistically, in fact it is as powerful as it is divided. Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway's bipartisan collaboration "What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live" categorizes several different types of female voters. It is important to note that, although this list certainly isn't exhaustive, it can be helpful to conceptualize women as voters. Among the kinds of women they characterize as left leaning are the "Feminist Champions," like Hillary Clinton; "The Alpha Striker," powerful professional woman who consider themselves agents of change, and the "Multicultural Maverick," young, single, hipster women who tend to share liberal ideology but are generally indifferent towards or distrusting of politics. The conservative archetypes were "The Religious Crusader," politically active women with strong spiritual affiliations, "The Waitress Mom," blue- collar women primarily concerned with security and economic issues, and "The Suburban Caretaker," who is heavily invested in the moral standards of her community and country. This sampling of civically engaged women demonstrates the diversity in political priorities and leanings.

So which of these divisive issues are dividing women? Economic and social issues seem to be the clear sources of separation. The Democrats won over female voters in past elections by purporting that the GOP is waging a "war on women." Central to this claim is that Republicans are out of touch for their stances on issues such as contraception and abortion. This rhetoric dealt a crippling blow to Republicans in the 2012 Presidential election. Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, postulates that "the gender gap is smaller when Republicans don't make mistakes." This time around Republicans are working hard to avoid slipups like the cringe worthy "binders full of women" and cases of "legitimate rape." The GOP's resiliency in the face of alleged "anti-woman" rhetoric, coupled with the recent overshadowing of social issues by national factors, such as Ebola and ISIS, may win their party a substantial share in female votes in the upcoming presidential election.

On the other hand, Democrats have been particularly successful in pushing their Women's Economic Agenda. Rallying around hot button issues including equal pay, family leave, and childcare they have garnered the attention of many female voters. Richard Nixon once admitted to an aide during his campaign against John F. Kennedy that "if you ever let them campaign only on domestic issues, they'll beat us." The Democrat's historic support of welfare programs and social equality are generally more positively received by women than by men. If social issues once again steal the national spotlight in 2016, they may maintain their leading portion of female voters.

2020 will mark the 100- year anniversary of women's suffrage. The gender bloc has come a long way from fighting for the right to vote to having politicians fight for their votes. In the near future, successful presidential candidates will face the challenge of winning over this massive, divided, and influential portion of the electorate.