Suddenly, it feels like 2002. Democrats got creamed in midterm elections that year because the women voters they had relied on throughout the Clinton years deserted them. In 2000, women favored Democratic congressional candidates by nine points. In 2002, that advantage disappeared entirely. The biggest reason: 9/11. In polls that year, according to Gallup, women consistently expressed more fear of terrorism that men. And that fear pushed them toward the GOP, which they trusted far more to keep the nation safe. As then-Senator Joe Biden declared after his party’s midterm shellacking, “soccer moms are security moms now.”
Unfortunately for President Obama, the security moms are back. And as a result, the levee Democrats were counting on to protect against a GOP hurricane is starting to crumble.
Although today’s terrorism scare doesn’t rival the aftermath of 9/11, the parallels to 2002 are striking nonetheless. As a result of the ISIS beheadings, the percentage of Americans “very worried” about terrorism has just hit a seven-year high. Once again, women are more afraid than men. According to a CNN poll last week, women are 18 points more likely to say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried that someone in their family will be the victim of terrorism. According to Pew, they are six points more likely to call terrorism “very important” to their vote this fall. In a recent piece about “Walmart moms” who participated in focus groups in Des Moines and Little Rock, my colleague Molly Ball noticed the trend: “The women in both groups expressed pervasive worry about violence .… This emphasis on security was a departure from previous groups, many of which I've covered in the past few years, in which economic anxiety has overwhelmingly dominated.”
As in 2002, this anxiety about foreign threats is hurting Democrats. The GOP’s advantage on “dealing with foreign policy,” which was seven points last September, is now 18. And the shift toward Republicans has been strongest among women. In August, women were 14 points more likely to support Obama’s foreign policy than men, according to a Wall Street Journal poll. Now the gap is down to two points.
In August, white women favored a Democratic Congress by four points. Now they favor a Republican Congress by eight.
As in 2002, Democrats are responding by becoming more hawkish. In October 2002, most Democrats in competitive Senate races voted to authorize the Iraq War. Last week, Obama announced a multi-year air campaign against ISIS.
But it doesn’t work. Almost all the imperiled Democrats in 2002 lost anyway. And there’s no evidence that Obama’s new hawkishness is helping him politically either. One reason is that although women are more worried about terrorism than men, they’re actually less supportive of responding with military action. In 2002, women were somewhat more skeptical of invading Iraq. Today, they’re more wary of going after ISIS.
Fundamentally, the Democrats’ terrorism problem with women—especially married white women—isn’t about policy. It’s about trust. In 2002, at a time of heightened anxiety, women trusted a Republican president to keep them safe. In 2014, with that anxiety heightened again, they don’t trust a Democratic president to do the same.
This is likely the product of long-standing stereotypes about Democrats as weak on national defense and a generally sour mood about Obama and the direction of the country. In some voters’ minds, Ball notes, the chaos in the Middle East and the chaos in Ferguson have fused to create the picture of a frightening, unraveling world. That conflation was a staple of Republican politics in the 1970s and 1980s, when Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan accused liberals of failing to stand up to violent disorder both in the third world and on America’s streets. It proved toxic for Democrats back then, and it’s proving toxic again today.
It’s hard to see how Democrats change this between now and Election Day. As president, Barack Obama has racked up historic accomplishments. But he hasn’t made Americans feel confident in the direction of their government, their country. or the world. And now this lack of confidence has left him unable to protect his party against the dread ISIS has spawned. Obama, we’ve learned, always stays calm. Unfortunately for him, the people whose support he needs don’t.