Anxiety Itself

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014.


This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. 

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The success of the Democrats in 2016 will depend on women as candidates and as voters, up and down the ballot, as never before. That identification with women creates distinct political challenges at a time when public worries are high. Unless Democrats confront those anxieties effectively, Republicans may be able to win over voters, including women, by presenting themselves as the more reassuring “daddy” party.

The identification of the Democrats with women starts at the top with presumptive presidential favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton and the leader of the party’s progressive faction, Senator Elizabeth Warren. The number of visible women in the pipeline behind Clinton and Warren is also unprecedented. Women hold one-third of Democratic Senate seats up for election in 2016. At least seven GOP incumbents also have potential Democratic women challengers, from party stars like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois to Michelle Nunn in Georgia or Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. Women are stacked deep in the party leadership, from established figures such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Patty Murray, and current Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to potential future presidential candidates such as Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar.

We know in medicine but have not yet absorbed in politics that women are not simply small men. Whether as a result of genes or upbringing, biology or social norms, women have different political perceptions and patterns of participation than men do. Stimuli such as political advertising affect women differently. Nowhere are these differences more stark—or potentially catastrophic for progressive values—than in the effect of public anxiety on women’s perceptions of government and on everyone’s perceptions of women as leaders.

Anxious Days Are Here Again

Whatever the next 20 months bring, we have little reason to expect that the public’s current state of surly anxiety will lift. As pollsters Celinda Lake, Daniel Gotoff, and Matt Ogren write, “Voters’ economic anxiety is deep-seated (with few exceptions, majorities have rated the economy negatively going back to 2001) and shows no signs of abating.” The big wars of the Bush era are over, but terror attacks and bombing campaigns continue. The economy is growing, but wages haven’t increased much.

Even when our own lives are not directly threatened, terrorist violence and fighting abroad affect our political choices through what psychologists call the “mortality salience effect.” By reminding us of our inevitable deaths, such events prompt us to become more cautious, to identify with in-groups and to demonize out-groups, and to be less willing to share resources with people we see as different. In a study published in 2004 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers led by Mark J. Landau found that raising mortality salience with subliminal images of September 11 raised support for George W. Bush and reduced support for John Kerry. Recently, the videos of executions of Americans and other Westerners by the Islamic State may have triggered the same kinds of emotions that favor Republicans.

Gender politics magnify the electoral effects of anxiety in two ways. First, in surveys and other studies, women consistently report higher levels of anxiety. In fact, women poll twice as anxious as men, largely independent of the specific topic. Women are more concerned about security, physical and economic, than men. According to Lake, Gotoff, and Ogren, women “across racial, educational, partisan, and ideological divides” have “heightened concerns” about terrorism. Those concerns make women “more security-conscious in general and more supportive of the military than they were in the past.”

Walmart-sponsored focus groups found women expressing a significant and steady level of anxiety over the months preceding the 2014 midterms. At one session, the explanation was Ebola; another, ISIS—whatever had most recently dominated cable-news headlines. The pollsters interpreted the responses as “emblematic of anxiety they feel regarding other issues, including national security, job security, and people ‘getting stuff they aren’t entitled to,’ such as health care and other government benefits.”

The majority of voters express equal confidence in men and women as leaders, but when national security is the issue, confidence in women’s leadership declines. In a Pew poll in January, 37 percent of the respondents said that men do better than women in dealing with national security, while 56 percent said gender makes no difference. That was an improvement from decades past, but sobering when compared to the 73 percent who say gender is irrelevant to leadership on economic issues.

Female Democrats are at a double disadvantage. Many Democrats hoped that the Iraq War debacle and the 2006 and 2008 elections had forever eliminated the advantage Republicans have held on national security. Mitt Romney’s efforts to contest Barack Obama’s national-security leadership in 2012 fell flat. Other Democrats, however, never benefited from Obama’s Bin Laden halo, and that halo has faded with time. Since the Bin Laden mission, the gap favoring GOP candidates on national security has opened up again.

Learning from 2014

These concerns about the effects of anxiety on women as candidates and as voters are not hypothetical. In 2014, Republicans successfully used fear and anxiety to target women.

Each party tried out a women-and-fear strategy in the 2014 midterms. Democrats such as Colorado Senator Mark Udall and Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis tried making fear over the threat to women’s reproductive rights a central focus of their campaigns. Women as well as men responded with a shrug. Meanwhile, Republicans filmed ads with extreme imagery and claims around the threats from the Islamic State, Ebola, and illegal immigration—sometimes all mashed into one. Those ads ran first and heaviest in markets where a female Democrat was running for office, such as Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Nunn in Georgia, or Grimes in Kentucky. Caught by surprise, Democrats had little response beyond belittling the more ridiculous of the claims. In New Hampshire, where Senate candidate Scott Brown was already laboring under perceptions of inadequacy, mockery worked. But that race was the exception.

Despite Democrats’ emphasis on women’s issues in 2014, turnout by women voters fell (as did turnout by men), and women voters turned away from some Democratic Senate candidates by small but decisive margins. Udall saw his share of women’s votes fall from 56 percent in 2008 to 52 percent as women’s share of the state’s overall electorate dropped from 50 to 47 percent. In national exit polls, women voters reported themselves as more motivated by worries over security issues than the pundits and strategists had anticipated. The numbers suggest that a stew of economic and security anxieties, and GOP campaign strategies that played on them, may have tipped two or three percentage points of the women’s vote to the Republicans. In August 2014, GOP pollster Bill McInturff said that Republican efforts to court white and suburban women would mean the difference between a “really good cycle and a huge cycle” in November. Republicans did well with those women, and they had a huge victory.

Plenty of Democratic candidates, male and female, have effectively responded to efforts to paint them as weaklings. The successful candidates do three things. First, they are proactive in addressing voters’ security worries. They don’t wait to be defined by their opponents on economic or national security, and when attacked, they fire back, questioning the attacker’s strength and credibility—as Senator Jeanne Shaheen was able to do effectively against Scott Brown. Women candidates, in particular, have to treat security as a bar they have to meet from the start. A Democrat who doesn’t have a line in her stump speech about keeping Americans safe, and doesn’t have an anecdote that makes a personal and visceral connection to Americans’ security fears, is a losing candidate. Smart progressives also don’t overcompensate. They know that even though women voters are more anxious about the economy and national security, they consistently favor more government intervention in the economy and less military intervention abroad than do their male counterparts. Women show greater reluctance to send ground troops overseas than men do, even as they evince more anxiety about the Islamic State.

Second, successful candidates, especially women, frame their personal stories as part of an effective critique of opposing candidates and conservative policies. From Barbara Jordan and Bella Abzug to Warren and Gabrielle Giffords, successful female politicians are able to offer their own authentic toughness as the antidote to public anxiety. Plenty of women running for office have figured out how to evoke the pioneer mother, shotgun in hand. Warren references the military service and economic hardship of family members. Klobuchar makes a point of her leadership on veterans’ affairs.

Finally, Democrats must not assume that a focus on “women’s issues” is a substitute for solutions to the sources of anxiety for women voters. Yes, women are concerned about child care, women’s health, and blatant sexism. Yes, statistics say the economy is “improving.” Yes, we are more likely to die in our bathtubs than at the hands of the Islamic State. But Republican strategists have given notice that one of their key strategies for 2016 will be to play on anxieties, especially women’s anxieties, to attack one of Democrats’ presumed strengths, a female candidate’s attractiveness to female voters. The best way to respond to that strategy is for those candidates to respond creatively and substantively to the anxieties themselves. Democrats have seen too many decorated veteran candidates lose on security issues and too many serious economic leaders lose to lightweights. So, as they plan for 2016, they need to follow the advice that marriage counselors always give to men: Take her anxieties seriously. 

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