In A Polarized Election, 'Guardian Women' Could Be Key Swing Voters

Jun 8, 2020
Originally published on June 8, 2020 8:13 am

The COVID-19 crisis has brought significant challenges for American women, increasing their burden of care and raising unemployment levels to greater numbers compared to men.

As the general election inches closer, new polling shows that a subset of American women remain a wildcard, and they could be a crucial swing vote if the race for president gets close.

The non-partisan group All In Together took a look at how the pandemic was affecting women's political views and their willingness to vote in November. They surveyed 1,000 women and found that over a quarter (26%) were swing voters.

"There is, again, a group of women that are on the fence, that have split their vote over the years, have gone back and forth between voting Democrat and Republican," said Lauren Leader, the CEO of All In Together.

The group is referring to them as "guardian women," defined as largely white, married and over 50 years old. The majority also live in suburban areas, have an income over $50,000 and do not have a college degree.

Leader compares these women to the "soccer moms" and "security moms" observed in past campaign years. "There have always been groups of women who are really split down the middle in terms of their political affiliation," Leader said.

In 2012, these voters were divided almost evenly between President Obama (40%) and Mitt Romney (42%). In 2016, this group also split between Hillary Clinton (43%) and President Trump (41%).

This new poll indicates that former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has a small lead (46%) with "guardian women," compared to Trump (42%).

"Guardian women" are identified as a group of mostly white, married, suburban women over 50. Data comes from a survey of 1,000 registered Democratic, Republican and independent voters. Conducted May 8-9, 2020 with a credibility interval of +/- 3 percentage points
All In Together/Emerson College Poll

While Biden may have a slight edge with this group for now, a significant portion (12%) said they were undecided. When pushed, the undecided voters lean towards Trump, giving the president a potential chance to win back the advantage among them.

According to Leader, it may be worth a try since 85% say they are extremely likely to cast their ballots in the general election.

"These are women who are very likely to show up at the polls," Leader said, "90% of them agreed that their vote matters now more than ever to make sure the United States goes in the right direction."

In addition to the pandemic, these women are now also watching how candidates respond to racism and social unrest.

To Susan J. Carroll, a political scientist at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, there's a through line for all of these groups of swing women voters. As they go back and forth in their political affiliation, these women are all looking for the same thing — security — for their families and their communities.

Carroll says it started with "soccer moms" in the 1990s and then moved to "security moms" following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"The idea was they were focused on their children," Carroll said referring to "security moms." "But this time they were focused on ... keeping their children safe and their family safe," she added.

While the top security concern for the swing women voters following 9/11 was terrorism, like many voters "guardian women" want to protect their families from the pandemic and the recession, and it may be what motivates their decisions in November. The polling found that these voters are providing more care for parents and relatives than they did before the coronavirus pandemic, above what all women are experiencing.

"Guardian women" are identified as a group of mostly white, married, suburban women over 50. Data comes from a survey of 1,000 registered Democratic, Republican and independent voters. Conducted May 8-9, 2020 with a credibility interval of +/- 3 percentage points
All In Together/Emerson College poll

Elizabeth Lee lives in Minneapolis, Minn., and works as a paraprofessional with special needs students in an elementary school.

"I have children who are grown and one of my children did lose his job but has the privilege of unemployment. As for the health, that makes me concerned for my elderly parents. They are 85 years old and still in the same house that I grew up in," Lee said. "I mean, thank goodness they're not in a nursing home or anything like that. But I mean, they do need help."

Sandy Dailey is 74, lives in Nebraska and supported Trump in 2016. "I definitely won't vote for him again," she said. "He's just not a president. He's just not at all," Dailey added.

Like other women and seniors who've stopped supporting Trump, Dailey points to the president's behavior during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis.

"He just comes up with some of the most off the wall things," Dailey said, referring to Trump's decision to take a picture holding a bible in front of St. John's Church near the White House shortly after a crowd of peaceful protesters was aggressively cleared out.

"I was thinking that maybe he was going to hold the Bible and say a prayer for our nation. I just didn't imagine it was for a photo shoot. I was so disappointed. It's just awful," she added.

Terri Olsen, who manages a dental office in Onalaska, Wisc., voted for Trump in 2016, but now says she is undecided. Olsen says her main issue centers around the economic challenges brought on by the lockdown in response to COVID-19, an issue Trump has been pushing.

"I think that the shutdown of the country has devastated so many people, and it's going to for a long time. So I think it's very important for whoever is voted [in] is going to definitely do something about that," Olsen said. "I think that shutting down everything was a mistake."

Olsen believes that Trump would be better for the economy than Biden, but she takes issue with Trump's bullying style, a quality that has pushed her into the undecided column, among other things.

"The pandemic has kind of pushed me more to the middle. Rioting and that whole situation has pushed me more to the middle. I guess I still have time before the election, and I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but it just seems like everything is getting more divided. And I guess I'm looking for someone to unify us and to make me confident that they're going to do something about our economy," Olsen added.

All In Together is planning to go back in the field later this month to survey women in the battleground states, where voters who share the demographics of the "guardian women" are an even larger percentage of the electorate.

"These women, I think, are going to be an incredibly important factor in November," Leader added, "We need to watch them, we need to understand them, and we need to focus on those folks in the middle that are still trying to decide which way to go."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, both parties believe that November's election is going to be decided by which side turns out in greater numbers. And because the country is so polarized right now, there are few left to be persuaded. But a new survey has identified what could be a key swing group among women. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: American women have borne the brunt of the COVID crisis. It's increased their burden of care. They've lost their jobs in greater numbers than men. Lauren Leader, who runs a nonpartisan group called All in Together, wanted to find out how the pandemic was affecting women's political views and their willingness to vote in November. So she surveyed a thousand women - a pretty big sample - and what she found was that 26%, more than a quarter of the women surveyed, were swing voters.

LAUREN LEADER: What we found in this poll is that there is, again, a group of women that are on the fence, that have split their vote over the years, have gone back and forth between voting Democrat and Republican, you know, much like the soccer moms and the security moms in previous elections.

LIASSON: And now, in addition to the pandemic, these women are watching how their leaders respond to racism and social unrest. There's a throughline for all of these groups of swing women voters, says Sue Carroll, a political scientist at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. As they go back and forth in their political affiliation, these women are all looking for the same thing - security, for their families and their communities, starting with the soccer moms of the 1990s.

SUSAN CARROLL: Then they became - after 9/11, in the Bush era - they came to be called security moms because this time they were focused on keeping their children safe and their families safe.

LIASSON: Back then, the threat was terrorism. Today's swing voters - Leader calls them guardian women - want to protect their families from the pandemic and the recession, and they're providing more care for parents and relatives than they did before. They're women like Elizabeth Lee, who lives in Minneapolis and works in an elementary school.

ELIZABETH LEE: One of my children did lose his job but has the privilege of unemployment. As for the health, that makes me concerned for my elderly parents. They're 85 years old and still in the same house that I grew up in. I mean, thank goodness they're not in a nursing home or anything like that. But we do worry about them.

LIASSON: Guardian women are generally white and suburban. They're mostly married, a little older than average, with incomes over $50,000, and they do not have college degrees. In 2012, these women split their vote almost evenly between Obama and Romney. In 2016, they split again between Trump and Clinton. In this new poll, they favored Joe Biden but only by 3 points. Sandy Dailey, who's 74 and lives in Nebraska, voted for President Trump, but...

SANDY DAILEY: I definitely won't vote for him again. He's just not a president. He's just not - at all.

LIASSON: Like some other women and seniors who've soured on Trump, Dailey points to Trump's behavior during the pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing.

DAILEY: He just comes up with some of the most off-the-wall things. The other night, holding the Bible - I was thinking that maybe he was going to hold the Bible and say a prayer for our nation. I just didn't imagine it was for a photo shoot. I was so disappointed.

LIASSON: Then there's Terri Olsen, who manages a dental office in Onalaska, Wis. She voted for Trump, too, but now she's undecided, even though her main issue - the lockdown - is one that Trump has been pushing.

TERRI OLSEN: I think that the shutdown of the country has devastated so many people, and it's going to for a long time. So I think it's very important that whoever is voted is going to definitely do something about that. I think that shutting down everything was a mistake.

LIASSON: Terri thinks that Trump would be better on the economy than Biden, but she says Trump's bullying style has pushed her into the undecided column.

OLSEN: The pandemic has kind of pushed me more to the middle. The rioting and that whole situation has pushed me more to the middle. It just seems like everything is getting more divided, and I guess I'm looking for someone to unify us and to make me confident that they're going to do something about our economy.

LIASSON: Twelve percent of the guardian women in the poll are undecided, and when pushed, more of them still lean to Trump. So the president has a chance to win some of these women back. And according to Lauren Leader, it's probably worth a try.

LEADER: Across the board, what we're seeing is that despite the enormous stresses on women's lives right now, they are undeterred when it comes to participating in November. Ninety percent of them agreed that their vote matters now more than ever to make sure the United States goes in the right direction. And we need to watch them. We need to understand them.

LIASSON: Leader's group is planning to go back in the field later this month to survey women in the battleground states, where voters who share the demographics of the guardian women are an even larger percentage of the electorate.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.