Gender’s impact on 2020 elections

Oct 16, 2020  | 27 min  | Ep 4809 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rachel Paine Caufield, professor of political science at Drake University, and Kelly Winfrey, assistant professor of journalism at Iowa State University and coordinator of research and outreach for the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, discuss local and national races and the impact of gender in the upcoming election.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Caroline Cummings, political reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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Female candidate are a majority of the candidates in Iowa's Congressional and Senate races. And women will be a decisive factor in the presidential race. We explore the potential impact for Campaign 2020 on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 16 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Just six years ago in October 2014, Iowa still held an infamous role as one of the last states in America to elect a female candidate as either Governor, U.S. Senator or to Congress. But Senator Joni Ernst, Governor Reynolds and Congresswomen Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer have changed all that. Women now make up 7 out of 10 U.S. Congressional and Senate major party candidates in Iowa this year. That guarantees the state will have a female officeholder in the U.S. Senate and at least half of the House delegation. In the presidential election, female voters are trending away from President Trump and could be a deciding factor in November.

Yepsen: For more insight we have gathered a pair of Iowa political experts. Kelly Winfrey is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Iowa State University and Coordinator of Research for the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. And Rachel Paine Caufield is the Professor of Political Science at Drake University. Welcome to you both.

Thanks for having me.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks for being here. Journalists joining us across the table are Caroline Cummings, Politics Reporter for Sinclair Broadcasting and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Professor Winfrey, in the past week Donald Trump came to Iowa, had a big rally at the Des Moines Airport, there has been a U.S. Senate debate on Thursday night. Have any of these events changed the trajectory of the top 2 races on the Iowa ballot for President and U.S. Senate?

Winfrey: I doubt it. I think that there are pretty -- most people are decided about their presidential choice. I think the Senate race the polling shows it's a little bit closer and within the margin of error, but I expect that it will be more along party lines. So I think if Biden does well in Iowa then Greenfield will do well in Iowa as well. Though I think the debate they had Thursday night did demonstrate some of those differences in their own kind of individual perceptions a little bit. I think Joni Ernst really went on the attack I think and did a pretty good job of trying to associate Greenfield with the more liberal parts of the Democratic Party, though I don't know that that's entirely accurate, but a good campaign strategy. So we'll see if Iowa voters think that Greenfield is too liberal or if they think Joni Ernst has been tied too much to Trump

Henderson: Professor Winfrey, has the outcome been baked in already? Or do events such as happened this past week play a role in changing voters' minds?

Caufield: Was that Professor Winfrey?

Henderson: I'm sorry, Professor Caufield.

Caufield: I just wanted to make sure. I think at this point it is pretty baked in. This is what we're finding across the political spectrum as a whole. We're in a period of intense polarization, we're in a period of negative partisanship where we affiliate with a political party and that ends up driving virtually all of our behavior, including our voting behavior. And so the underlying dynamics of these campaigns, of course you want to find a candidate who fits the constituency well, and that candidate has to do well on the debate stage, and that candidate has to be able to kind of comport themselves well with voters. But on the whole I think so much of our politics today is already determined by that partisan line that we shouldn't expect to see a large shift at the end of an election anymore. There are very few undecided voters, truly undecided voters out there.

Cummings: Professor Caufield, there was also hearings on Capitol Hill this week for Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court. Which side is more motivated by her nomination?

Caufield: So this is actually I think a really interesting story in terms of when the Supreme Court is elevated into our public discourse in conversation, where is that framing occurring successfully or less successfully? And for most of the modern era republicans have really been motivated by considerations of the Supreme Court and that largely came out of the Warren Court era, perceptions of a very liberal Supreme Court, and so republicans saw a need to respond to that and the Supreme Court was front and center of course particularly through the '80's and into the early '90s. And so it has kind of been baked into the republican argument for why their candidates should be elected. In this election, as we see the court move ot the right and we see a different storyline emerging. So liberals who feel disadvantaged now in the Supreme Court I think are becoming more and more motivated by the court and the courts more generally as a consideration in their voting decision.

Cummings: Professor Winfrey, what is your assessment of that?

Winfrey: I think that is accurate. The long game for republicans has been to try to make the Supreme Court more conservative and that has been part of their voter's knowledge for a while. That is I think one of the reasons Trump was successful. But I think that we have to think kind of similar to what happened in 2018 with the Kavanaugh hearings, not so much that the Supreme Court Justice is not going to get appointed because she is probably going to be seated on the court, but the feeling that there is a pendulum swing to the right, that maybe certain people's rights will be taken away, can help mobilize voters to get people in the legislature and the White House that can help secure those rights through other means.

Yepsen: Professor Winfrey, go back to something Professor Caufield said, republicans and conservatives have been motivated about courts really if you go back to prayer in school  and tax breaks for private schools, it goes back a long way. Do you see this moment as one that is transformative for progressives and people on the left who now, as she said, are worried about their rights being taken away? Is this going to be a countervailing source of equal size?

Winfrey: It's hard to say at this point but I think it very likely could be because we're talking about rights for a lot of important democratic voters, for women, for LGBTQ, for people of color, we're talking about voting rights. And so those mobilizing factors can get people more people to pay attention to the court on the left. I think that in some ways, and I see this sometimes with students in previous years, that they feel like those rights have been won and they're not going to go away. But if there is that threat that the court might overturn some of those key decisions that I think could have a long-term impact on voter mobilization on the left.

Henderson: Professor Caufield, let's talk about swing voters although you don't think there are very many of them. They have been identified this year as a really important block, suburban women, at one time we called them soccer moms I believe. Is this a new phenomenon? Aren't suburban women always a swing sector of the electorate?

Caufield: I think more or less so, but suburban women you can go soccer moms and before, this has been a key voting demographic for decades and I think in large part, part of this comes down to the changing demographic nature of the suburbs. The suburbs have become younger, they have become less white over time and so we're seeing a different group of suburban voters overall. But I think women have also often times prioritized issues that make them less clearly identifiable with one constituency or another and most notable that is security, issues of safety and security, and republicans have owned security issues, the tough on crime rhetoric, natural security issues, things like that for a long time. Whether or not they continue to do so I think is going to be a key question going forward. We're going through a bit of a transition in the way we think about our political parties, they way we think about our institutions and certainly there are challenges that the country is facing that we haven't faced before. But in a COVID world I think those women could very well be cross-pressured, issues of health, security, safety for their families, things like that.

Henderson: Professor Winfrey, do Iowa suburbs perform just like the rest of the suburban areas in the country or are they slightly different?

Winfrey: You're going to find geographic differences I think with any group of women voters. Actually I wrote a book about women voters and this is what I did my dissertation research on because I have been mesmerized by this idea of soccer moms from the '90s and on and I think research shows women overall are more liberal than men and that can vary some on issues and it's going to vary some by geography. I think what we see in Iowa is more women that are politically moderate and maybe lean slightly to the left and we see a pretty big gender gap right now in some of the polling in Iowa so that seems to indicate that they're leaning to the left. But in general I think they're probably a little bit more moderate than women in like areas like California or something like that. But that is kind of true of Iowa electorate overall, I don't think that is specific to women, it's just kind of where on the spectrum they fall as compared to men. But I do think that women voters are going to play a very important role in this election, like they did in 2018. I think that is one of the main reasons you saw the swing in the House was that suburban women who voted for Trump decided they weren't going to keep voting republican in that election. And we saw that happen in some of the Des Moines suburbs as well. And I think women in Iowa and women in the suburbs in Iowa will have a big impact on the direction of all the races.

Cummings: Professor Caufield, you mentioned the issue of security striking a chord with suburban women. The President in his rallies across the country and in Iowa this week made the case pleading with women to come to his side, saying he has "protected their neighborhoods". Is the threat of crime and the promise of law and order still that anchor for this group of the electorate? 

Caufield: I'm not sure that we have an answer to that yet. But historically it certainly has been. And there have been a lot of parallels that have been drawn between the President's law and order rhetoric and the law and order rhetoric from President Nixon, this has been kind of a continual effort in the Republican Party to frame law and order issues and to own them as an issue so that they are naturally favored when those issue frames are activated in a voter's mind. And so I think in the current climate there is kind of this interesting, this interesting place where we have a lot of empathy and sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement, for protestors, for the idea of social change and then you have the President's effort to push back on that and say this is about law and order and to specifically identify the suburbs, which I think is a really interesting and meaningful tactic on his part. Even during the Republican Convention of course you had this idea that democrats are going to get rid of the suburbs, right, like that the suburbs themselves are under threat, not just from external forces but from the government. So I don't think we know yet the extent to which that specific argument is resonating. But I think it's something to keep an eye on as the parties frame their arguments going forward.

Cummings: Professor Winfrey, you mentioned Des Moines suburbs and suburban women kind of flocking towards democrats two years ago in 2018. Do you anticipate it to be more this time?

Winfrey: I think it will be at least the same because not much has changed in terms of the White House. Obviously we saw the same President, his behavior has not changed, his policy positions have not changed. And I think that something Professor Caufield mentioned with COVID as a security issue is pretty important as well. So you have kind of those dueling narratives of I'll keep you safe from crime in your neighborhood but also are you keeping me safe from this deadly virus. And so I think that sort of motivation might be more impactful this cycle because I think that is something people are seeing right now. Women in Iowa suburbs are figuring out how to do online school and to have their jobs and to maybe get to send their kids to daycare some of the time and so all of that is very real for a lot of women in Iowa and nationally right now. And I think that might have a bigger impact than some of these fear tactics about policing or crime.

Henderson: In 2016 the aftermath of that election there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth about the polls. Professor Caufield, you see people having conversations online, doubting the polls. This week Governor Reynolds at President Trump's rally told republicans, don't believe the polls. What is your view of the polls?

Caufield: I think in many ways the national level polling in 2016 was not actually far off from the outcome if you just count votes. The problem is that that's not how we aggregate votes for the presidency and so there was a mismatch between the information that we were using to make predictions, and I say we not meaning me, I would like to disavow myself from that, but the data that was being used to predict the election and the actual electoral mechanism that was going to be used. I think one of the things that is happening this cycle, which is a very positive development, is that more and more polling organizations are really focusing on state level polls and looking at how the Electoral College works and making sure that their data matches the system. And so I think that predictions are probably better. Now, whether or not the polls themselves are better is another question. We do have a group of voters who I think in their anti-establishment mindset are also less likely to answer pollsters, either they are unlikely to answer the phone at all, they are unlikely to respond to an online poll, or they just simply give wrong answers because they can and that is a way of kind of thumbing your nose at the establishment and political environments.

Yepsen: Has the pandemic changed that? A lot more people are at home. Our response rates, have they improved? Does that work in the opposite direction from what you're talking about?

Caufield: I haven't seen substantial improvements in response rates. I do think more people are paying attention to the day-to-day developments in the electoral environment and so it may be that that makes polls more or less accurate. I'm not sure yet. We'll have to see.

Henderson: Professor Winfrey, people talk about the "shy" Trump voter. Is that a factor in this polling data that you're pawing through this year?

Winfrey: I think it always is. You never know how honest people are and polling is always a best guess. Polls improve based on what they learned in the previous cycle but voters might behave differently. So if there is, if there are people who still feel like they support Trump but in their circle feel like that is frowned upon then they might not be truthful in those polls. So I think that is certainly still a factor. But I think it's hard to know. It's the same problems we had in 2008 with polling, we didn't realize how big of a victory Obama was going to have because of who showed up to vote. So likely voters, what we think those are, are based on previous elections, but they can vary, and we don't know who is going to show up. So it's always a best guess. I think some good advice I got from a graduate student working on a campaign was if you're a democrat, go to bed believing the polls and wake up not believing them so that you keep working, and I think that is how the campaigns have to function of we hope this is right but we don't know, because at the end of the day it's who shows up, I'd say on Election Day, but really who is showing up right now or mailing their ballots in --

Henderson: It's Election Season.

Winfrey: Yes, Election Season.

Yepsen: Professor Winfrey, expand on something we were talking about earlier. Evangelical women, a lot of them do live in the suburbs, are they changing? We talk about the suburbs, they're different than they were 50 years ago, you've got the daughters and granddaughters of women 50 years ago when Nixon was playing that card. Now, have the suburbs changed? Are evangelical voters, women, changing? We hear anecdotally that there's a lot more concern for the environment, for example, among evangelical voters and 50 years ago or even 20 years ago it was all about abortion. What thoughts do you have about that?

Winfrey: I think that in large part the suburbs have changed, the demographics of suburbs have changed drastically in the past 30 years. So what we count as suburban voters is going to be very different. In terms of evangelical women I don't see much shift in that group from my research, partially because a lot of the issue focus is still on those Christian values or issues, things like abortion are still single issue, there are still a lot of single issue voters that are pro-life and I've seen a lot of Christian women, evangelical women, who don't like Trump but want to make, want to have a conservative Supreme Court, and so they're willing to take him in order to get, to further those values.

Cummings: Professor Winfrey, we've seen strides, you mentioned, in women represented in Congress, at the Statehouse we have a female Governor. Are we seeing demographic changes and makeups in local city government?

Winfrey: Yes and no. Yes because we've seen more women run at all levels of government. So, in 2018 we talked a lot about the record-breaking number of women that were elected to Congress as well as to governorships, but we had record-breaking numbers of women running at all levels of government, so from the city school board on up. And what most research shows is that when women run they have just as good a chance of winning. The problem is getting women to run. And if they're running they're more likely to win. And so we're seeing I think more women in the pipeline as well that could be running for higher level office later on.

Henderson: Professor Caufield, as of October 1st there are about 13,000 more registered republicans than democrats and no party voters are in the number 3 position. For decades, no party voters were the dominant registration group in Iowa politics. What is going on?

Caufield: I think there are a lot of things going on. First of all, I think we are living in an age of polarization and negative partisanship. I think the parties have been very active in registering new voters. Because we are a caucus state, we have local activists in a way that very few states have. And so those party organizations operate at every level in every small town and they are empowered by the party to galvanize supporters, bring them together and really form a community of party support within every single corner of the state. And so I think that helps kind of make sure that the party registrations remain high. But it's difficult right now I think for a lot of voters to, in the currently polarized environment, I think it's difficult to interact with peers and family members and say, I'm undecided, I don't know.

Yepsen: What about the tactics here? Republican strategists tell me that the fact they have that 13,000 vote edge that Kay mentioned was reversed after the Caucuses. Is it they're doing a better job at the ground game, going out there and digging up, finding those shy Trump voters than the democrats are? Do you have a sense that that's correct?

Caufield: Well, in some respects by definition it is because you see more republican supporters and republican candidates actually out in-person interacting with one another in the current environment. And so, so much of this campaign cycle the tactics of the campaigns and the parties have had to be different. The democrats have always kind of been known for their edge in the field game, being able to go out and knock on doors and talk to people and actually do direct voter outreach, they can't do that right now.

Cummings: Quickly here, shifting gears, broadcast media has been dominant for political advertising. Has social media finally caught up and taken over with its influence? 

Winfrey: That's a great question and I'm one of the few people in the world that loves political advertising, it's something that I study, my students get to watch lots of them because they really do highlight issues. But I think you see both types of advertising. Digital advertising, advertising on social media is still a lot cheaper than advertising on television, so you get a lot more bang for your buck and you can also target voters much more specifically, so you can make sure that your message is tailored to the issues that they care about, to their geographically location and all of those kinds of things. So I think in that way it is a more useful tool for reaching and mobilizing specific voters. But you still have a lot of voters who are watching traditional television, watch the news where they do still watch commercial breaks, so I think there is both, but you have seen a huge increase in online advertising.

Henderson: We have a minute left. Kelly Winfrey, half of it to you. What do you want to dig into after the election in all that data that you're going to see?

Winfrey: Well, what I'm interested in digging into is how women voters are going to vote. I'm looking at whether or not Kamala Harris proved to be a mobilizing element for women voters, if she helped sway women voters and how people, particularly women that voted in 2016, vote this time around and if there's movement.

Henderson: Rachel Caufield?

Caufield: I'll be looking at the degree to which the Supreme Court nomination really shifted voter's opinions or not and how it mobilized different kinds of voters across the two parties.

Yepsen: Do you think we're going to see an expanded Supreme Court in the United States?

Caufield: I hope not.

Yepsen: Okay, but my question is, is that possible?

Caufield: It is possible.

Yepsen: Are democrats going to count or what has happened?

Caufield: Well, so, Congress can change the size of the Supreme Court at any time. If the democrats want to take that chance then they'll go for it. I think they would meet serious resistance.

Yepsen: And I can't change the length of time that we have on this show. I have to cut you both off. Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press with a gathering of Iowa journalists checking the pulse of Campaign 2020 in small towns. Joining our election preview next week are Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times, Doug Burns of the Carroll Times-Herald, Ty Rushing of the Northwest Iowa Review and Bob Leonard of KNIA-KLRS Radio. That's Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen, and thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa