Come November, the fight for California’s congressional seats will be a fight to get women out to vote. Republicans and Democrats will each pursue the women’s vote. But it is single white women and women of color who hold the power to impact the state’s congressional landscape.
We hear a lot lately about the persistent gender gap in U.S. party politics. On the whole, women lean significantly Democratic – 55 percent compared to 45 percent for men in the November 2012 presidential election, based on CNN exit polling.
In California, the gender gap is more like a gender canyon. Among the state’s women voters, 64 percent went Democrat in November 2012, compared to only 34 percent who voted Republican. In contrast, California men voted 54 percent Democrat and 43 percent Republican.
So why this gender divide? In surveys, women consistently cite the economy, health care and education as crucial issues that determine how they vote – rating them more highly than men do. As a group, women often find themselves more affected by economic declines. They vote issues that affect their economic vulnerability and are more likely to prefer an active government that produces a stronger social safety net – a key difference in viewpoint separating Republican and Democratic party platforms.
Political analysts break down the gender gap by marital status. On a national scale, married women lean slightly Republican – 53 percent in November 2012. Single women, including growing numbers of single mothers, are overwhelming Democratic. In November 2012, more than two-thirds of single women voters chose Obama, according to Edison Research.
But race is glaringly missing from discussions on the women’s vote. White married women actually voted strongly Republican in 2012. Single white women did not. Both married and unmarried women of color voted heavily Democratic.
Race is a key contributor to the huge gender gap in our diverse state. Female voters of color, led by California’s significant Latina population, are driving the gender difference in voting. And both California’s already large proportions of single women and women of color are on the rise.
But California is a diverse state geographically. The political impact of women depends on what part of the state you are looking at. Party affiliations and demographics differ dramatically across county and district lines, with women in rural and suburban areas more likely to be married and white. These demographic differences have implications for the party struggle over both congressional and state politics.
Two heavily contested California congressional races this fall are in the 7th District, between Democrat Ami Bera and Republican Doug Ose, and in the 52nd District, between Democrat Scott Peters and Republican Carl DeMaio. Both seats are held by Democrats, but their outcomes are uncertain in November. Both suburban districts also have similar demographics with larger white, non-Hispanic populations than California as a whole – 55 percent and 59 percent, respectively, compared to the state average of 39 percent.
In districts like these with tight races, the candidate who wins the women’s vote will win the election.
They may not want to publicly admit it, but the Republicans running in these highly contested districts aren’t fighting for the women’s vote – they are counting on the married white women’s vote. This is a group that is more likely to favor them and one that also turns out in higher numbers.
Compared to Republicans, the Democratic candidates already have a greater number of women registered. But their strongest supporters – single women and women of color – don’t turn out to vote as regularly as married white women do, and are even less likely to show up in midterm elections. And with no compelling statewide races or ballot initiatives to entice voters, you have a recipe for potentially the lowest turnout in a statewide midterm election. Midterm election turnout is whiter, older and more Republican than turnout in presidential elections. Low turnout will hurt Democrats in these races.
Thanks to California’s new top-two primary system, two Republicans are now facing off in Tom McClintock’s 4th District. Normally, in a strongly Republican district, a Republican candidate only has to seek the vote of his party supporters to ensure victory. Not here. McClintock already has strongly conservative Republican voters in the bag. In order to have a fighting chance, challenger Art Moore will need to aggressively seek moderate women Republicans, as well as female Democrats and independents.
One possible benefit to Moore is the district’s low marriage rate for women – only 21 percent compared to the state average of 33 percent. But the district is also 80 percent white and high-income. Both factors help favor conservative Republicans.
Ultimately though, Moore still faces an uphill battle after not performing well against McClintock in the June primary. The power of incumbency will most likely trump all else in this race.
As the electorate continues to diversify in California, the gender canyon will widen even further. Combined with the top-two system, this means that congressional campaigns will need to increasingly court a diversity of women regardless of party and geography.
The contest continues for California’s congressional seats. The party that does not quickly adapt to the state’s changing women’s vote risks losing critical seats in the battle for congressional control.
Mindy Romero is director of the California Civic Engagement Project, UC Davis Center for Regional Change.