By Lauren Leader for The Hill | November 10, 2022

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during Election Night on Nov. 8, 2022, in Detroit. Exit polling shows women voters and the issue of abortion helped Whitmer to win a second term.
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during Election Night on Nov. 8, 2022, in Detroit.

The balance of power in Congress following the midterm elections is still to be determined, but one thing is clear: Women showed up and delivered for Democrats and abortion rights across the country. The polls predicting women were breaking right en-masse were dead wrong. The punditry that abortion didn’t matter was wrong. Conventional political theory holds that it’s always the economy, stupid. Not anymore. Maybe it’s time the media and political world recognize that now it’s the women, stupid. As go women, so goes the country.

Women have turned every election since 1980. They are more likely to be registered to vote and more likely to turn out than men. But you’d never know it from the way elections are covered. Somehow, they are always a political footnote. The narrative in these midterms, as in so many recent elections, has been reductive, grouping women into overly simplistic categories; think soccer moms, security moms, etc. Women are more complex than that. Yes, the economy matters, and in binary polling questions, it was a top issue, but as early exit polls are showing, it’s more complicated than that. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision drove a voter registration surge and motivation to turn out among a coalition of women that Democrats needed, and that made a huge difference in the election. Many of us who work on women’s political participation called it correctly — we knew that the early vote count and polls that focused on them all pointed to abortion as a high motivator.

The Michigan governor’s race is highly instructive here. Exit polling shows that race was all about abortion; it was both on the ballot with a constitutional amendment and a contest between women candidates with starkly different commitments to upholding abortion rights in the state. The result: female Michiganders hugely came out for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, 75 percent of them voting for her compared to 55 percent of men among the 18-29 demographic, and 62 percent versus 48 percent overall. And it was a multigenerational coalition: Majorities of women of all ages broke for Whitmer, while men over 30 mostly went for Republican Tudor Dixon. White women also broke for Whitmer by 52 percent, as did independent women. 

Michigan is an important story because it illustrates just how much the political divides in America today are really gender divides. Women across all generations, and women of color, are overwhelmingly left-leaning. This also tracks with the higher education level of Democrats — women have been the majority of college degree earners for years and are also more than 50 percent of the graduate degree holders. Republicans are increasingly white, male, less educated, and much more right-leaning. Black women are the engine and backbone of American democracy. They are more likely to register to vote and to show up than any other group of voters. But there, too, the media consistently overlooks their contributions.

Much has been made of the shifting Latino vote, and certainly, in Florida, they delivered big for Republicans. But that’s a skewed view — Latino men are leaning more conservative, but Latino women have held solidly Democratic and did in most races beyond Florida. Maybe now we can stop looking at those voters as a monolith and do the work to engage them more seriously in every election cycle. Just weeks before the election, a large share of Latino voters was still undecided. Democrats need to focus on addressing the issues and opportunities Latino women are saying matter to them.

For Democrats to win nationally as they did decisively in 2020 and at the state and federal levels, they need high turnout and female engagement. They got both in the 2018 midterms and again in 2022. That’s the coalition that every Democrat at every level of government needs. It might be time to take that seriously as the central strategy for the party. Now in the lame duck and in what certainly will be a closely divided Congress, Democrats must focus on what matters most to those voters: codifying abortion rights and passing what was left out of the Build Back Better plan, namely affordable childcare, paid leave, and protections for pregnant workers. The fact is, when Democrats deliver for women, women will deliver for them.

Those of us who push the news media to cover women voters more completely and accurately will continue our work; it likely will never be done. But maybe after the results of the 2022 midterms are finally tabulated, more in the political establishment — and especially those producers in the media — will pay closer attention and recognize that in modern elections, it’s the women, stupid.