Gender gap shapes Georgia campaign strategies

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It’s a big year for politics in Georgia, with a governor up for re-election and an open U.S. Senate seat. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following it every step of the way.

A distinct gender gap is forming in the race for Georgia’s top offices, as polls show female voters are siding with the Democratic candidates while men are solidly behind the Republican hopefuls for the open Senate seat and in the governor’s contest.

The gap mirrors a national trend that has unsettled GOP leaders and helped Democrats seize Republican-held seats in places like Virginia. Republicans here see their lead among men as a bulwark against Democratic gains in a state buoyed by demographic changes.

The distinction was sharpened in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Sunday. Democrat Jason Carter led Republican Gov. Nathan Deal by 10 points with female voters, and women gave Michelle Nunn a three-point advantage over Republican David Perdue in the Senate contest. Other recent polls have portrayed an even wider gap between male and female voters.

Women are a particularly prized voting bloc because they make up a majority of those likely to cast ballots in November.

The Democrats have tried to press their attack with campaign outreach efforts that increasingly target women, pitting their slate of six female statewide candidates as a contrast to the GOP's all-male ticket. To heighten the rift, Nunn recently unleashed a new attack ad that questions whether female voters can trust her opponent.

“As I talk to people across the state, I hear more and more people saying we need a different kind of leader in Washington, someone who is collaborative and pledges to work across the aisle,” Nunn told the AJC. “And I hear that from women a lot.”

Republican candidates, who say they are positioning their message to appeal to a broad range of voters, are retooling their focus. The governor has met with female voting blocs to fine-tune his message. Perdue recently started a chapter for female supporters, and his wife, Bonnie, is playing a more visible role on the campaign trail. Both candidates will appear at a GOP women’s club rally later this month.

Still, Perdue has tailored his message more broadly in hopes that his argument — that Nunn would be a rubber stamp for the White House — will resonate with female voters. When asked about the emerging gap, Perdue cited a growing budget deficit and Washington gridlock.

“I’m trying to get people to focus on the crisis that pulled me into this race in the first place and why we offer better policies than the six years of a failed administration under Barack Obama,” he said.

A ‘war on women’

Both parties are trying to capitalize on a national pattern that crystallized in the 2012 election, when the gender gap was the largest recorded in the polling firm Gallup's history. Females supported Obama by 12 points over Mitt Romney. The Republican won the male vote by an eight-point margin.

In Georgia, the gender gap could ultimately decide the race. A report the Secretary of State's Office released in August showed there are about 2.8 million "active" female voters, defined as voters who have participated in recent elections. They account for roughly 56 percent of the state's 5 million likeliest voters.

If Democrats succeed in registering more minorities, where black females outnumber their male counterparts by an even greater margin, the divide could increase.

Democrats have tried to widen the rift by pressing a "war on women" argument that claims Republicans are too far to the right on issues such as abortion rights and gender equality. The AJC poll showed that women generally expressed more concern over social issues and health care than men. Male voters were more likely to list immigration as a determining factor in their vote.

Susan Carroll, a Rutgers University political scientist who has studied the gap, said ultimately many women end up voting on the “kitchen table” issues such as the economy and education.

“Men are much more likely to be in favor of cutting back on government than women are,” Carroll said. “Women, even if they want to cut back, care more about protecting the safety net. Over time, that’s factored pretty seriously into the gender gap.”

That helps explain the gap in the governor's race, where Carter vows to significantly increase education funding, partly by raising revenue through more vigorous prosecution of tax cheats. Female voters were more likely to list education as a defining issue in the election in the AJC poll than men.

“The most important issue that we confront in this state is education,” the Democrat said of his female support. “Those things matter to everyone, and the fact that we’re charging ahead on those issues is meeting people where they are.”

Deal, whose campaign has criticized Carter’s plan as unworkable, offers more modest plans to recalculate the school funding formula. He counters by pitching himself as the “responsible” candidate who won’t play politics with education.

“The legacy of my parents’ combined 70 years of public school instruction is put to the test and on the line. Can we keep the same quality of public education that I was able to enjoy, that my four children have been able to enjoy?” Deal said. “This campaign is too important to be allowed to be simply dictated by rhetoric and promises.”

A different dynamic is on display in the Senate campaign, where analysts say Perdue’s long track record in the business world could bolster his appeal to male voters. He faces a different struggle over female voters.

His critics are quick to remind voters he was forced to apologize to former Secretary of State Karen Handel, then a rival in the crowded GOP primary, for referring to her as "the high school graduate in this race." And Nunn, a nonprofit executive, accused the Republican in her most recent ad of pay discrimination when he led Dollar General.

The ad cites a pay discrimination complaint, which didn't name Perdue, filed by female managers at the firm. It was settled for nearly $19 million after Perdue left the job. Megan Whittemore said Perdue believes in equal pay for equal work and called it a misleading attack that won't work "because women want real change in Washington."

A ‘white guy’ haven?

A range of female voters interviewed by the AJC highlighted the rift in Georgia. Lynn Samuels, a 66-year-old from Stone Mountain, said the GOP candidates seem overly partisan. She views the Democrats as the “lesser of two evils” since Libertarians are a long shot.

“This is not a good state to be in if you’re not a middle-age white guy,” Samuels said.

Others aren’t swayed by the Democratic entreaties. Donna McClung, a 60-year-old from Hiram, said Carter seems too young and inexperienced to run the state. And she feels a connection to Perdue, partly because of the way he’s treated his female opponent.

“I like David Perdue,” she said. “I like the way he hasn’t really slandered Michelle Nunn in the news. He more or less goes on what he’s done — rather than what other people haven’t done. I like that.”