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Female voters eagerly courted

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 - 8:04 am

DERRY, N.H. – Emmakate Paris was a one-woman tornado the other day, whipping through the racks at the thrift shop here, hunting for clothes for her children and one special item for herself: a green suit. For Halloween, she wants to dress up as Tippi Hedren from the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds."

Halloween is a small indulgence in a life that Paris, 41, said is consumed by worries – "about the kids, insurance, vacation, school, taxes, the price of gas, everything."

She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but is now torn. Obama has not lived up to his promise, she said. "My husband and I both have to work full time, and we're just getting by."

But she is not thrilled with Mitt Romney either. She said he would set women back because he does not understand their needs.

"Women worked so hard to get where we are today and to take our rights away from us is – no," she said, shaking her head.

Behold the coveted female swing voter of 2012. She has slipped a rung or two down the economic ladder from the "soccer moms" of the more prosperous 1990s, as indicated by her new nickname – "waitress mom." Rather than ferrying children around the suburbs in minivans, her defining characteristic is spinning in the hamster wheel of a tight economy and not getting ahead.

The intense competition for the female vote was underscored Wednesday as both presidential campaigns seized on a remark by Richard Mourdock, the Republican Senate candidate in Indiana, in a Tuesday night debate that pregnancy is "something that God intended to happen" even if it is the result of rape.

Romney, who had just made an ad for Mourdock, quickly distanced himself from the statement, while the Obama campaign just as quickly suggested that it reflected the backward thinking of Republicans and said that if elected, they would pose a danger to women's health.

The quadrennial obsession with winning over female voters can sometimes lead to mythmaking.

Pollsters now question the validity of soccer moms as a distinct voting bloc; the term came into vogue in the 1996 presidential election, but vanished soon thereafter, only to be replaced by the equally dubious post-9/11 "security moms."

Whether or not the term "waitress moms" endures, it defines a distinct demographic: blue-collar white women who did not attend college. And they are getting a lot of attention from both campaigns as the election barrels toward its conclusion because even at this late date, pollsters say, many waitress moms have not settled on a candidate.

They feel no loyalty to one party or the other, though they tend to side with Republicans.

"Blue-collar women are most likely to be the remaining movable part of the electorate, which is precisely why both campaigns are going at them as hard as they are," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, who is advising Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC.

About 9 percent of all voters in 2008 were white women without college degrees who had an annual household income of less than $50,000, according to the exit polls.

Clearly economic issues are front and center for women here in this blue-collar town in Rockingham County, which Obama won in 2008 by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Michelle Trulson, 39, actually is a waitress. She works a second job, too, as a lab technician. Fearing that Romney would undercut her attempts to provide for her family – and end funding for Planned Parenthood – she supports Obama.

"I'm a single mom," she said. "I'm not on welfare, I do work, I don't collect food stamps. But my kids need insurance, so they're on Medicaid and I don't want that messed with."

And the economy is the reason that Ashley Delpidio, 26, who works in customer service for a health insurance company, supports Romney – despite his opposition to abortion rights and mixed statements on birth control.

"I'm a woman, so obviously I believe in woman's rights," she said, but added that the economy was her overriding concern and Romney would do better at creating jobs.

While women in general have historically supported Democratic presidential candidates, which is what the gender gap is all about, working-class white women without college degrees are among their weakest links. Obama lost them to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008, and to John McCain, the Republican, in the general election.

But Obama won women overall because black and Latino female voters turned out in greater numbers than usual and supported him overwhelmingly, as did white college-educated women. As he seeks to rebuild a winning coalition in battleground states like this one, analysts say, he needs to keep his losses among waitress moms to a minimum.

"Women are the volatile vote at the end, particularly independent, non-college-educated, married women," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has long specialized in women's voting patterns.

Important as these women are to both campaigns, they are only one slice of the much-sliced-and-diced female electorate. Pollsters tend to find women more interesting than men because women are more likely to be swing voters, while men usually make up their minds early.

Pollsters have found differences among women in all kinds of ways that seem to correlate with their voting habits. Unmarried women, for example, tend to vote Democratic, they say, while married women tend to vote Republican.

The multiple differences among women have created a kind of kaleidoscopic inter-gender gap, from which catchy labels sometimes emerge. Apart from waitress moms, there are now "Wal-Mart moms," a group defined by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm – and adopted by the retail giant – as any woman who has shopped at a Walmart in the last 30 days. They differ from waitress moms in that many have college degrees and higher incomes.

Actually, there is nothing about Wal-Mart that pegs its shoppers as swing voters, said Will Feltus, senior vice president of National Media, which buys advertising time. Citing data from Scarborough Research, he said that a higher percentage of independent female voters was likely to be found at Lord & Taylor, T.J. Maxx and Macy's.

The data yield other tidbits that could be useful to campaigns trying to reach independent women. Their taste in television programming, for example, runs to the daytime soaps, their preferred soft drink is Diet Sierra Mist and their preference in wine is rosé.

"Groups of women simply don't resemble each other anymore, which is really fascinating," said Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway, a Republican pollster – whereas, she added, the gender gap between men and women had become fairly predictable.

"Mars vs. Venus," she said, "is a yawner."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Katharine Q. Seelye

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