The Undecided Female Swing Voter Is Still Undecided

Just days ago, Nate Silver wrote in the New York Times that "if only women voted, President Obama would be on track for a landslide re-election, equaling or exceeding his margin of victory over Senator John McCain in 2008." Today, a new Associated Press-GfK poll, cited by CBS News, indicates that that gender gap is "all but gone."

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Just days ago, Nate Silver wrote in the New York Times that "if only women voted, President Obama would be on track for a landslide re-election, equaling or exceeding his margin of victory over Senator John McCain in 2008." Today, a new Associated Press-GfK poll, cited by CBS News, indicates that that gender gap is "all but gone": "Republican Mitt Romney has erased President Obama's 16-point advantage among women ... And the president, in turn, has largely eliminated Romney's edge among men." As we reach the final days in the lead-up to the presidential election, things are changing and a bit whiplash-inducing. But one thing is constant: The attention to and pressure for each presidential candidate to win that undecided swing voter, particularly those in key states.

So who is this person, or, specifically, who is the female swing voter? We've talked about it before, in various terms. Earlier this month, a piece in Reuters named the many catchphrases being used to indicate her, none of them, as our Esther Zuckerman pointed out, all that flattering. But trying to generically identify a person based on her shopping habits ("Walmart mom") or car preferences ("minivan mom") or job ("waitress mom") or kids' activities ("soccer mom") or coffee preference ("Starbucks mom") never is, really. Today in a New York Times piece by Katharine Q. Seelye comes further clarification on our coveted, undecided female swing voter, the "waitress mom." Seelye adds, "Not all waitress moms are waitresses, of course, nor are they all mothers." Here's what we learn about who she is.

  • This woman may have voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but now, feeling he hasn't lived up to his promise, is not sure she'll give him her vote this election year. 
  • Still, "she is not thrilled with Mitt Romney either. She said he would set women back because he did not understand their needs."
  • "She has slipped a rung or two down the economic ladder from the soccer moms of the more prosperous 1990s, as indicated by her new nickname —waitress mom. Rather than ferrying children around the suburbs in minivans, she is spinning in the hamster wheel of a tight economy and not getting ahead."
  • The whole idea of the "waitress mom" as a voting bloc, like "soccer moms" and "security moms" may be a myth, in any case. 
  • Regardless, this catchphrase "defines a distinct demographic: blue-collar white women who did not attend college." Many have still not decided, though they often lean Republican. Seeyle writes, "About 9 percent of all voters in 2008 were white women without college degrees who had an annual household income of less than $50,000, according to exit polls."

These are the women Obama and Romney are both speaking to, whether they talk about abortion, rape, rape exceptions, "controlling one's own body," "pocketbook issues for women and families," Planned Parenthood, birth control, one's child's future role in the nation's debt, and their own moms and grandmoms. These women, per the Times, are generally more focused on jobs and the economy than they are on women's rights—Maslow's hierarchy of needs, not to mention the economy has always been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, issues of this election, despite all the recent talk on both sides on "women's issues" (both sides presumably hoping to snag this female voter with their stated opinions, regardless of how women see those statements—or even whether those are the issues most important to them). Said one woman Seelye spoke to: "'I’m a woman, so obviously I believe in woman’s rights,'... but added that the economy was her overriding concern and Mr. Romney would do better at creating jobs."

Meanwhile, from CBS News, following the latest disconcerting statements about rape and abortion from Republican Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, "A renewed focus on social issues would be an unwelcome development for Romney: Among female likely voters, 55 percent say Mr. Obama would make the right decisions on women's issues, compared with 41 percent who think Romney would." Yet, again, it's not clear that the undecided female voter, and in particular, the waitress mom, is as concerned about women's issues as she is about taking care of her family, making sure there's food on the table, having a job, working. "A month ago, women favored Mr. Obama over Romney on the economy 56 percent to 40 percent. Now, the split has shifted to 49 percent for Romney and 45 percent for Mr. Obama," according to CBS.

The biggest takeaway of all from the Times piece, perhaps, is that “Groups of women simply don’t resemble each other anymore, which is really fascinating,” according to Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway. Historically, such working-class white women as the "waitress mom" have been the most likely to skew Republican, despite an overall trend in women to vote for Democratic candidates. But you can't say all women will vote the same way anymore than you can say men (more likely to decide on their candidate early) will. We are all special snowflakes, even as we are divided in categories like "married," "unmarried," "older," "young," "waitress," and "hockey," "middle class," and "blue-collar," and on and on. Sticking a further pin in the notion of the Walmart mom is data from a market research firm that finds that those independent women voters were more "likely to be found at Lord & Taylor, T.J. Maxx and Macy’s." Of these ladies, "Their taste in television programming, for example, runs to the daytime soaps, their preferred soft drink is Diet Sierra Mist, and their preference in wine is, fittingly, rosé," writes Seeyle.

Not all of us like the soaps, or the Sierra Mist. Some of us, like the New York Post's Andrea Peyser, can't stand it when men (like Barack Obama) call women "sweetie,"and regardless of being a self-professed "pro-choice Democrat," considers Romney "the true feminist candidate" "in word and deed." Personally, I hate Starbucks (yep, I said it), and my mom calls me sweetie and I think it's sweet. So, yeah, some women are undecided, and others feel very strongly about their, or their paper's, choice, but all of us—all of us women, waitresses or not, are simply not the same; we all have the issues that matter most to us. No wonder winning those undecided voters over is so damn hard. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.