WASHINGTON — In the final stretch before the midterms, President Obama is giving a lot of attention to the traditional Democratic base: young people, black voters and white women.
But women are his most urgent target. Unlike the other core groups, women are undecided, rather than merely unmotivated. And there are signs in parts of the country that they are open to defecting to Republicans, potentially defying the long-standing "gender gap" that has skewed heavily toward Democratic candidates.
In the highly competitive Colorado Senate race, women are divided almost evenly between Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and his Republican challenger, Ken Buck. In Missouri, female voters are not giving any measurable boost to Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan, who is trailing Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. And in New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte is actually ahead among women by 10 percentage points, one of several factors in her lead overall.
In House races, where women have sided with Democrats by an average of nine points since 1976, they are now about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. That is a sharp drop-off from just four years ago, when women chose Democrats by a large 12-point margin and put them in the majority.
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Of course, the news is not good for Democrats almost everywhere — and certainly much worse among white men, who are embracing Republican candidates by a greater proportion than ever before. But women matter more: As a whole, men lean Republican, while women usually act as a counterbalance for Democrats.
"Women are not a shrinking piece of the electorate. They're a shrinking piece of the Democratic pie," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said Democrats are seeing an erosion with women who did not attend college, especially because of the economy.
"They do not think the administration's economic policies are working for their families, and worry about the priorities of this administration, and wonder if they get it," Lake said.
On Thursday, Obama held an official event in Seattle targeting women on economic issues, before campaigning with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has had an advantage among female voters since first being elected in 1992 as a "mom in tennis shoes."
Obama also is sending out senior female members of the administration to talk about economic matters, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. The idea, she said, is to remind female voters that "there are millions of women who've benefited" from Obama's small business programs, with more benefits on the way from a new consumer protection agency and health-care reform. First lady Michelle Obama's recent foray onto the campaign trail has been aimed at women as well.
Democrats argue that the gender gap in their favor isn't disappearing but simply becoming less of a sure thing.