Sweet, shiney toffee-apples abound, pumpkins sit on doorsteps and the leaves are luminous. Yet amidst Campusville’s clear, crisp autumnal air, there’s an unmistakable whiff. For as sure as Fall is upon us, the US political season has arrived.
The mid-terms are in less than two weeks - campaign posters are popping up in front yards and every time Little Teadrinker and I pass by the mall, we’re accosted by canvassers - “Are you a Campusville voter ma'am?”. The asker yesterday morning was a Green Party activist, keen to let me know about the threat to the town’s skyline from large billboards. But in spite of the wide eyed little face staring up at us from the stroller, he failed to make the obvious argument: that I should vote Green for the sake of my child’s future.
This is not the kind of mistake you'd expect these days from an activist from either of the two main parties. Both Democrats and Republicans are keener than ever to appeal to voters’ maternal instincts. With their swing-voter tendencies, moms have long been a key target. But since Sarah Palin arrived on the scene in 2007 they have risen dramatically in the consciousness of US electioneers and spin doctors.
On the Republican side, the approach has been less dog-whistle politics and more a loud-as-you-can-bare-it cat call. Palin’s Mama Grizzly video is a case in point. Speaking in San Diego last week she made a rallying call for all Grizzlies to “rise up on our hind legs and say no”. The party is now trying to capitalise on her fan-base with Palin endorsed Mama Grizzly nominees standing for office across the country. But while their brand is unmistakable, their policies are pretty indistinct from the wider far-right/Tea Party movement within the Republican party. They tend to be driven by Christian values (most are anti-choice) and are fiscally conservative (all oppose the Health Bill). They provoke a mixture of devotion and scorn but it is not very clear how their demands will meet the needs of America’s great many over-worked, under-paid and currently financially insecure moms. NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently described them as “the ideal nihilistic cheerleaders for an angry electorate”.
The Democrats were late-comers to the momification of political marketing but have now cottoned on that while the Hilary Clintons and Nancy Pelosis of this world are highly skilled champions of women’s policies, to win votes younger female faces are needed from outside the traditional political elite. The most promising poster girl for this is the Democrat Congressional nominee for Virginia’s 1st district. She is impressive 28 year old mother of two, entrepreneur and software designer Krystal Ball who has nobly fought off sexist internet smears. If she wins, she will be the youngest ever female congress woman. However, much of the Democrat effort to win female voters is based on slating the Palinites and even Ball seems shy about using her platform to tell a positive story about what has been achieved and where we must go next in terms of issues such as fair pay, education investment, health reform and maternity rights.
Before the last leaves turn, we will know much more about whether all this mom-talk has really changed anything. But looking at some of the polling data from the last few weeks, prospects do not look promising. Three major points of note:
- Beyond Palin herself, the “mama-grizzlies” are failing to win-over Republican women. For example, Fox has reported that in in Connecticut, Delaware and Nevada, Palin-backed Republican female candidates are polling behind Democrat men.
- Women across the spectrum are becoming disaffected with politics, more so than men. Since the mid 1980s women in the US have turned out to vote in greater proportions than men, and the gap in voter participation between male and female eligible voters reached its widest in 2008. But the latest data from Gallup suggests all that might be about to change. When asked about their enthusiasm to vote, US women now lag 13 percentage points behind men.
- The number of women in Congress looks likely to fall for the first time. Independent analysts are predicting 5-10 fewer women, despite the Republican party putting up a record 128 female candidates. Susan Page of USA Today explains that this is to do with voters, both male and female, turning away from the Democrats (who have greater female presence) and opting for what they believe to be a “safe” pair of male hands in these tough economic times.
So, after all the noise it seems as if America may be no closer to achieving a political system which is genuinely responsive to the needs of women. Disappointing? Yes. Inevitable? Maybe. The idea that the huge appetite for change that existed in America in 2008 has crumbled under the weight of financial crisis is now widely accepted. Just as Obama’s Rooseveltian moment has passed, so it could be argued has the moment for a new mom-politique. But this explanation on its own feels too fatalistic. Even in hard times, it must be possible for politicians to speak directly to the needs of moms, and women in general. But, unlike a lot of what we've seen, the approach needs to be serious and content driven. Eye-catching and insubstantial is fine for a toffee apple, but it won't do for women.