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In a polarized election, ‘guardian women’ could be key swing voters

  • By Mara Liasson/NPR
People vote in Detroit during the March 10 Michigan primary. A new survey has identified a group of persuadable voters dubbed

People vote in Detroit during the March 10 Michigan primary. A new survey has identified a group of persuadable voters dubbed "guardian women" who could decide which party wins key states like Michigan and the election.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought significant challenges for American women, increasing their burden of care and raising unemployment levels to greater numbers compared to men.

As the general election inches closer, new polling shows that a subset of American women remain a wildcard, and they could be a crucial swing vote if the race for president gets close.

The non-partisan group All In Together took a look at how the pandemic was affecting women’s political views and their willingness to vote in November. They surveyed 1,000 women and found that over a quarter (26%) were swing voters.

“There is, again, a group of women that are on the fence, that have split their vote over the years, have gone back and forth between voting Democrat and Republican,” said Lauren Leader, the CEO of All In Together.

The group is referring to them as “guardian women,” defined as largely white, married and over 50 years old. The majority also live in suburban areas, have an income over $50,000 and do not have a college degree.

Leader compares these women to the “soccer moms” and “security moms” observed in past campaign years. “There have always been groups of women who are really split down the middle in terms of their political affiliation,” Leader said.

In 2012, these voters were divided almost evenly between President Obama (40%) and Mitt Romney (42%). In 2016, this group also split between Hillary Clinton (43%) and President Trump (41%).

This new poll indicates that former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has a small lead (46%) with “guardian women,” compared to Trump (42%).

While Biden may have a slight edge with this group for now, a significant portion (12%) said they were undecided. When pushed, the undecided voters lean towards Trump, giving the president a potential chance to win back the advantage among them.

According to Leader, it may be worth a try since 85% say they are extremely likely to cast their ballots in the general election.

“These are women who are very likely to show up at the polls,” Leader said, “90% of them agreed that their vote matters now more than ever to make sure the United States goes in the right direction.”

In addition to the pandemic, these women are now also watching how candidates respond to racism and social unrest.

To Susan J. Carroll, a political scientist at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, there’s a through line for all of these groups of swing women voters. As they go back and forth in their political affiliation, these women are all looking for the same thing — security — for their families and their communities.

Carroll says it started with “soccer moms” in the 1990s and then moved to “security moms” following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“The idea was they were focused on their children,” Carroll said referring to “security moms.” “But this time they were focused on … keeping their children safe and their family safe,” she added.

While the top security concern for the swing women voters following 9/11 was terrorism, like many voters “guardian women” want to protect their families from the pandemic and the recession, and it may be what motivates their decisions in November. The polling found that these voters are providing more care for parents and relatives than they did before the coronavirus pandemic, above what all women are experiencing.

Elizabeth Lee lives in Minneapolis, Minn., and works as a paraprofessional with special needs students in an elementary school.

“I have children who are grown and one of my children did lose his job but has the privilege of unemployment. As for the health, that makes me concerned for my elderly parents. They are 85 years old and still in the same house that I grew up in,” Lee said. “I mean, thank goodness they’re not in a nursing home or anything like that. But I mean, they do need help.”

Sandy Dailey is 74, lives in Nebraska and supported Trump in 2016. “I definitely won’t vote for him again,” she said. “He’s just not a president. He’s just not at all,” Dailey added.

Like other women and seniors who’ve stopped supporting Trump, Dailey points to the president’s behavior during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis.

“He just comes up with some of the most off the wall things,” Dailey said, referring to Trump’s decision to take a picture holding a bible in front of St. John’s Church near the White House shortly after a crowd of peaceful protesters was aggressively cleared out.

“I was thinking that maybe he was going to hold the Bible and say a prayer for our nation. I just didn’t imagine it was for a photo shoot. I was so disappointed. It’s just awful,” she added.

Terri Olsen, who manages a dental office in Onalaska, Wisc., voted for Trump in 2016, but now says she is undecided. Olsen says her main issue centers around the economic challenges brought on by the lockdown in response to COVID-19, an issue Trump has been pushing.

“I think that the shutdown of the country has devastated so many people, and it’s going to for a long time. So I think it’s very important for whoever is voted [in] is going to definitely do something about that,” Olsen said. “I think that shutting down everything was a mistake.”

Olsen believes that Trump would be better for the economy than Biden, but she takes issue with Trump’s bullying style, a quality that has pushed her into the undecided column, among other things.

“The pandemic has kind of pushed me more to the middle. Rioting and that whole situation has pushed me more to the middle. I guess I still have time before the election, and I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but it just seems like everything is getting more divided. And I guess I’m looking for someone to unify us and to make me confident that they’re going to do something about our economy,” Olsen added.

All In Together is planning to go back in the field later this month to survey women in the battleground states, where voters who share the demographics of the “guardian women” are an even larger percentage of the electorate.

“These women, I think, are going to be an incredibly important factor in November,” Leader added, “We need to watch them, we need to understand them, and we need to focus on those folks in the middle that are still trying to decide which way to go.”

Elena Moore contributed to this report.

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