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analysis

Some American women have been mobilized by the abortion issue and will ardently support Democrats in the midterm congressional elections. Some are furious about issues involving schools and will passionately support Republicans.

Women – the balance of power in the last midterms – are the critical moving parts in Tuesday’s elections. And in the last days of the campaign, there is every indication they are moving toward the Republicans.

“These races will be won or lost among women in the suburbs,” said Dana Brown, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University. ”That’s where the fight is right now, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Women are the primary deciders on pocketbook issues at home and they are the ones making the hard choices at a time when economic issues are the top priorities.”

The Democrats made a series of calculations as Election Day approached. One – a gamble that they continue to make, perhaps out of desperation – was that they would be able to persuade voters that low unemployment was just as important an economic factor as high inflation. That was a failure. Another – the latest example came from President Joe Biden in his pro-democracy speech a week before the polls open – was that questions of election integrity would motivate voters to support Democratic candidates in droves. There’s little evidence of that.

But the third calculation – perhaps made out of necessity, perhaps fuelled by wishful thinking – was probably the most critical. It was that women, especially white suburban women, would do for them in 2022 what they did in 2018, when they propelled the Democrats to a House majority. That looks like a disaster.

More than three out of five white women with college degrees voted Democratic in House elections in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s not going to happen Tuesday.

What does a surge in early voting mean for the U.S. midterm elections?

The latest Wall Street Journal Poll showed an astonishing 27-percentage-point movement away from the Democrats in recent months among white suburban women, a group that accounts for a fifth of the entire electorate. These women comprise a coveted segment of voters who favoured Democratic congressional candidates in the summer, but now, by 15 percentage points, prefer Republicans. Three out of four of them believe the country’s economic policies are going in the wrong direction. By more than two to one they believe economic issues are more important than abortion. They also have greater trust in Republicans than in Democrats on crime.

Forgotten, or ignored, was this fact: White women have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1948 with only two exceptions: 1964 (when they sided with president Lyndon Johnson over senator Barry Goldwater) and 1996 (when they supported president Bill Clinton over former senator Bob Dole).

Throughout the new century, and in this contest, Black women are the Democrats’ most reliable voting group. “Democrats who want to win have to appeal to Black women not only as voters but also to get Black women to run for office, to organize and to get out the vote,” said Nadia Brown, the director of the women’s and gender studies program at Georgetown University. “The Democrats take them for granted, and they do so at their own peril.”

The Democrats weren’t entirely wrong in seeing the power of the female vote as they girded for this year’s elections. More than 82 million women voted in the 2020 presidential election, far more than the almost 73 million men, a pattern that has held since 1960. But they erred in thinking that women would march in solidarity under the abortion-rights banner.

“There’s the assumption that women are Democrats, but that’s not true,” said Jane Yunhee Junn, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “They only look Democratic because minority women in the United States are so heavily Democratic that they push the average up for Democrats. The fact that women are voting Republican should not be surprising.”

But the Democrats were distracted, or perhaps lured into a false sense of security, by the surge of women who registered to vote in Kansas this summer after the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion rights. By a margin of 18 percentage points in a devoutly conservative state that gave Donald Trump a 15-percentage-point victory in 2020, Kansans voted against removing protections for abortion rights, but political scientists caution that voters behave differently in referendums than in elections.

Doubts over integrity of American politics remain in run-up to midterm contests

A massive survey conducted by researchers from Harvard, Rutgers, Northwestern and Northeastern universities found there was a midsummer 3.2-percentage-point spike among Democratic women who said they were “very likely” to vote in November. But that spike has disappeared, and as the election approached, abortion ranked fifth – below inflation, crime, the economy, and health care – among the issues that concerned women.

Every election is different, and political strategists, like generals, are tempted to fight the last war.

But while Democrats refought 2018 – a great female-powered triumph that allowed the party to block Mr. Trump’s legislative agenda – the Republicans refought 2021, last year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin swept into power on concerns about public-school issues.

Increasing numbers of women are inflamed by issues involving the classroom. The release of test scores in both math and reading – which plummeted after school lockdowns and remote learning – came at the worst possible time for Democrats. Then there are the concerns about the content of school lessons on race and gender, another motivator for conservative women.

In recent years there has been mounting evidence that the culture wars have extended down into school board elections, and there are strong indications they are motivating conservative women to mobilize in the midterms – perhaps as a political counterbalance to the liberal women mobilized by abortion rights.

“Women are not a monolith,” said Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “The things that push women’s votes aren’t all the same. Women hold very different positions on issues and mobilize in different directions on them.”