Dems might lose women over economy

It’s undeniable that the recession is leaving its mark on America. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if someone soon discovers that it has altered the partisanship of the electorate. Just at the moment in time when Democrats thought they’d become rulers of the roost, their stock might be falling like the Dow did in 2008.

You can’t look at polls today to see this change. Neither will voter registration figures necessarily reflect it immediately. But Democrats are about to lose some adherents. I would offer as evidence of change to come the results of a survey recently completed by Hart Research Associates. The March nationwide poll found that women are more conservative than men about future spending and purchasing large items. Deeper in the poll results we find that younger women were more affected than older women by the recession and that “women, at 38 percent, were more likely than are men, at 28 percent, to say the recession has taught them to value family, friends and quality of life over material goods.”

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Young women, the slice of the electorate across all states that has been most likely to self-identify as liberal and Democrat for more than a decade, has been transformed by recession. They have learned that big spending has consequences and that family matters. The poll results are remarkable. “Young women changed their spending habits more so than older women following the slowdown. In the survey, 48 percent of women aged 18-39 said they were saving and investing more, compared with 29 percent of women over 40. The younger-women group is also more likely to put money to paying overdue bills and paring down debt than the older group.”

If younger women are paying down their own debt, how long can it be before they want Uncle Sam to do the same? If younger women are investing, when can we expect them to become aware that state and federal taxes and regulations affect the profitability of the companies they are investing in?

One of the poll’s sponsors observed that, “For many young women, this is the first economic downturn they have lived through and really experienced the stress and hardship that economic cycles can cause.” Exactly. Just as the Great Depression had an impact on public opinion and partisan alignments, isn’t it reasonable to assume that the crucible of our own deep recession would alter some belief systems?

What is less clear to me is that Republicans will necessarily benefit proportionately from the slide in Democratic affinity that is almost certain to occur. It might  well be that younger women, like their Tea Party compatriots, choose to become unaffiliated or independent of the two major parties. (Some polls of Tea Party sympathizers show more women (55 percent) than men (45 percent) aligning with that movement.) A lot more young women than normal may decide to vote for selected Republican candidates this year, but they are unlikely to fully embrace a party that many of them have reviled for most of their adult lives. Years from now, we may decide that this cohort of young women were independents for several election cycles, using their unaffiliated status as a sort of halfway house before fully transcending to Republican identification as they aged and matured. Or Republicans could blow this opportunity and send them back to their old man, the big-government Democrats. Let’s watch and see.

Polls have also discovered another issue that may push women further away from Democrats toward Republicans. In California, where they are voting on a marijuana legalization measure this November, women are joining with Republicans as the measure’s strongest opponents of permissible pot. Does this surprise, that women fear living and working in a state in which young men spend far too much time being stoned?

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.