The midterms' dumbest storyline: No, women didn’t cost Democrats the election!

Don't blame Democratic losses on an emphasis on so-called women's issues. Here's what really happened this week

Published November 7, 2014 6:25PM (EST)

Cory Gardner, Scott Walker, Thom Tillis                      (AP/Brennan Linsley/Reuters/Steve Marcus)
Cory Gardner, Scott Walker, Thom Tillis (AP/Brennan Linsley/Reuters/Steve Marcus)

Friday’s jobs data showing the unemployment rate dropped again, to 5.8 percent, just heightens the surreality of Tuesday’s GOP midterm victory. In 2012, Mitt Romney promised he was the guy who could get the unemployment rate, then stuck above 8 percent, down to 6 percent in four years. Obama did it in 21 months, and was rewarded with another midterm shellacking.

Now Democrats are pointing fingers at one another, with so-called "moderates" suggesting the party's emphasis on women and minority voters hurt them with white working class voters. In an article about some Democrats’ discontent with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Politico reports “there are complaints about Pelosi focusing so strongly on women without a broader message that could play to other groups, such as older voters and men.”

But in fact, the Democrats’ emphasis on women’s issues at least partly paid off. National exit polls showed the party did better among women in 2014 than in 2010, when they lost the women’s vote: on Tuesday they won women 51-47 percent. Among unmarried women, the specific target of many groups’ efforts, they did even better: In 2010, unmarried women backed Democrats 57-41; in 2014 it was 60-37. Of course that lagged behind the 2012 women’s vote, but we have to compare midterm electorates, since presidential-year turnout is so different.

Let's also remember that stories bemoaning the Democrats' stumbles with women voters are mainly talking about white women: Black and Latina women overwhelmingly supported Democrats, again, as they have consistently. Republicans only recovered from 2012 by either flipflopping on or outright lying about their anti-women agenda -- witness Cory Gardner's flipping on personhood, or Scott Walker brazenly pretending his crackdown on abortion clinics was actually in the interest of promoting women's choices.

Where Democrats really lost big in 2014 is with the white working class. Again, as in 2010, they lost this group by 30 points, up from 23 points in 2012. Interestingly, the Democrats have done better with the white working class, too, in presidential years – even with President Obama at the top of the ticket. While I think race plays a role in many white voters’ rejection of the president and his party, it’s clear there’s something else going on, too, and it has a lot to do with economic insecurity. (This analysis from Ruy Teixiera and John Halpin is, as usual, invaluable.)

The truth is that Democrats never successfully sold their agenda as promoting opportunity for everyone, and they got hurt by the political culture's zero-sum approach to politics and economics. Running away from the president, many were unable to tout the good news about the economy and Obamacare, however incomplete.

Even the messaging on women’s issues, to be honest, could be clunky. Too many Democrats have a hard time casting women’s issues, even reproductive health, as economic issues, and thus their appeals come off as pandering. Despite all the attention to the women’s vote over the years, I still don’t think the party understands it.

Now we may be in for a cycle of hippie-punching, women-hating and scapegoating, as centrists try to sell us on tough-guy saviors -- Jim Webb 2016, anyone? Joe Manchin for Senate Minority Leader?

But the party, while chastened by Tuesday's results, shouldn't panic and reverse course. Demography is still in the Democrats' favor. So is taking the right stands on so-called culture war issues, from gay marriage to women's rights to drug-law reform. On the economy, voters supported Democrats’ stands on the issues, but wanted more. The overwhelming issue in the midterm election was sustained pessimism about the economy, despite the “recovery,” because the recovery has only reached the very wealthy.

The answer to the 2014 defeat can’t be either/or politics. If Democrats gamble the votes of women, or African Americans, or Latinos, in order to chase white working class men, they’re likely to lose, only in a different way. A sharper populist economic message will give them a better chance with everyone. The party can appeal to women, minorities and white working class voters at the same time. It has no choice.

By Joan Walsh