A Georgia woman waits to vote on Oct. 27.

(WOMENSENEWS)–The economic crisis has been stretching the voting gender gap in favor of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama.

Polls from mid-October show women, already more inclined to vote Democratic, embracing Obama with growing vigor, a trend that political analysts attribute to an economic crisis that is leaving women feeling acutely vulnerable to threats to their jobs, health care and financial stability.

A Gallup poll from Sept. 7, the day the federal government took over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, found female registered voters favoring Obama by 49 percent compared to 42 percent for his rival, Republican Sen. John McCain.

Following a six-week period when bad economic news dominated the headlines, that lead of seven percentage points widened to 16 points, according to an Oct. 26 Gallup poll. Women favored Obama 54 percent to 38 percent. Men, by contrast, were split almost equally between the two candidates.

“He’s going to need that women’s vote in order to win,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

The Obama campaign is courting donations from women as well as votes. It held a fundraiser Oct. 10 and 11 in Chicago billed as the National Women’s Leadership Issues Conference, where panels included Democratic stars like Robert Rubin and Madeleine Albright. About 1,000 women paid $2,500 to attend. A $28,500 donation guaranteed a meeting with Oprah Winfrey.

Women Write Checks for $75 Million

Women have given Obama more than $75 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington research group which tracks money in politics. Men donated almost $122 million.

McCain received $34 million from women and almost $88 million from men, according to the center.

 A McCain supporter cheers at an Oct. 15 rally in Florida.

If past patterns continue, more women will turn out than men in a year when voters, in general, are expected to turn out heavily. Women have voted in higher numbers in every presidential election since 1964, and they’ve voted at higher rates since 1980. In 2004 about 60 percent of women older than 18 voted, compared to 56 percent of men.

Women’s greater trust in Obama’s approach to the economy was echoed by the Economists’ Policy Group for Women’s Issues, a network of more than 40 economists from across the country. On Oct. 23 the group released a report card on the two candidates’ positions on 10 economic issues critical to women. Obama earned an overall B grade; McCain earned a D.

The group formed in 1992 to evaluate the presidential candidates that year, and this is the first time they’ve released a report card since that election. Robert Drago, a professor of labor and women’s studies at Penn State University, said the group felt the economic crisis had crowded out discussion of women’s issues.

Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who helped grade the candidates, underscored that point. “We’re tired of hearing about the Joes, as in Six-Pack and Plumber,” she said. “We want more attention (paid) to the Joannes; the women in our economy who typically earn less money and shoulder more family responsibilities than men.”

Grade Gap on Equal Pay

In the specific category for pay and employment equity McCain earned an F for voting against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which would expand the amount of time a worker has to sue for employment discrimination. The act would have countermanded the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling that Goodyear Tire employee Lilly Ledbetter waited too long to sue her employer, even though for years she didn’t know the company paid her male counterparts more.

Obama voted for the act and supported other anti-discrimination legislation, but because he lacks a comprehensive plan to promote pay equity, he earned a B.

The group gave out few As, but Obama did receive two for his positions on domestic violence and reproductive rights. McCain’s highest grade was a C-, which he earned in two categories: health care and nontraditional families.

McCain’s paucity of initiatives to alleviate poverty merited a D grade. Obama received a B for wanting to expand early childhood education, the earned-income tax credit and opportunities for affordable housing.

McCain and Obama received a D and a B+, respectively, for their support of paid sick leave for workers. No federal law requires paid time off, but a handful of states and municipalities have instituted policies that are creating a patchwork of varying benefits. The nonprofit advocacy group 9to5, National Association of Working Women is trying to pass a paid-leave measure on Election Day in Milwaukee, where it is based. California, Washington state, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are among those that already have similar laws on the books.

Trying to Seal the Deal

The Obama campaign was trying to capitalize on its edge with female voters in the last week of the election.

Becky Carroll, field director of Women for Obama, the campaign’s national initiative to reach out to female voters, said the campaign has been targeting female voters through woman-to-woman phone banks, house parties thrown by supporters and the heavy use of female surrogates at campaign events such as New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon.

The campaign also encouraged women to vote early to sidestep last-minute complications that could prevent them from voting, like a sick child on Election Day. Carroll emphasized that early voting allows women to “vote around their own schedule and their own time.”

The initial interest McCain generated among women by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has subsided, Walsh said. “Women are saying, ‘What about these economic issues? What about my survival?’ And that’s what they’re going to vote on.”

The widening gender gap stands to reason in light of women’s distribution within the economy, said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. (She is not related to Becky Carroll of the Obama campaign.)

Women account for almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers and are more likely to head households alone.

In August, before the worst economic news arrived, 58 percent of women were already saying they were “very concerned” about the job market, compared to 38 percent of men, according to a survey released by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

“Whether I’ve spoken with women in New Mexico or Indiana or Wisconsin or Florida or Colorado, they’re all asking the same questions,” said Women for Obama’s Becky Carroll. “They all wake up in the morning with the same concerns. They’re worried about their family. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re worried about retirement security and the cost of health care, and they want specific answers about how the candidates will address these issues.”

Claire Bushey is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.

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For more information:

Economists’ Policy Group for Women’s Issues

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