Communicating with 'A Woman's Nation'

How should political campaigns communicate with working women? They are an electorate that is increasingly difficult to reach, but upon which all elections now hinge.
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A new book by Maria Shriver documents women's ascension into the workforce and the fundamental societal changes that have occurred as a result. An important question remains: how should political campaigns communicate with working women?

For campaigns, women are key. Obama captured 56% of the women's vote in 2008; by contrast, Corzine captured 50% of the women's vote this year and Deeds only 46% -- both candidates lost. Year to year, women remain a swing group of voters, particularly non-college and suburban women, and the bulk of late deciders.

But reaching these busy women has grown increasingly difficult. Today, 80% of families no longer fit the male-as-sole-breadwinner mold. Women make up half of the workforce, and four in ten women are the sole breadwinner for their household. Women work harder and longer than they did decades ago: 6% of women hold more than one job and 40% of working women report irregular hours including nights or weekends. At the end of the day, working women report less than one hour per day of time to themselves.

In the 1960s, reaching women voters was a relatively easy task: all campaigns had to do was buy 1000 points of advertising on network television and odds are they reached the average female voter about ten times. When Lyndon Johnson aired his famous "Daisy" ad in 1964, more than 15 million households on average tuned in to primetime programming. Women were home during the day to answer phone calls from campaigns and open their doors for canvassers.

No wonder that as women's time outside the home has grown, they have become increasingly difficult to reach. Their television viewership has substantially declined: by 1993, only 62% of women watched the nightly news on broadcast television; last year, that number was down to 31%. Daytime viewership among women declined by more than half during the same period.

Given that number of women working 'non-traditional' hours, it should come as no surprise that women today are less likely to be at home to talk to canvassers. They are more likely to have caller ID and not answer calls from campaigns. Women under 40 and unmarried women are more likely to rent their home, and studies show this makes them less likely to read their mail.

To be sure, male voters are also harder to reach. Their television viewing declined during the same time frame: today less than 30% watch network news. Caller ID is more prevalent. Men under 40 also are not optimal mail targets.

But the challenges for reaching working women remain far greater than for reaching men. In the last fifty years, the average man's work week has changed less dramatically than the average woman's. And women remain disproportionately responsible for domestic duties, including childcare and household chores. Thus, women have fewer hours to devote to politics.

How can political campaigns engage these working women in public discourse? We offer three suggestions:

  • No-spin websites: The 24/7 nature of the Internet represents a way to engage working women during their scarce free time, and according to a recent Pew survey, 76% of women are on-line, up from 66% in 2005. But polls conducted for Women's Voices. Women Vote. show that most women - particularly those without a college degree - do not know where to go online for unbiased political information. That's why network TV news websites such as and do particularly well among on-line women relative to more commentary-heavy sites like and Political websites will need to provide impartial political information in order to become a trusted source for women online.

  • Social networks: Some good news -- when women do find political information, they share it: Facebook, for example, has more female (56%) than male users (42%); MySpace and other social networking sites exhibit a similar female-leaning audience. Pew data suggests that women's penchant for social networking will continue to increase: on-line content creation by teenage girls far outpaces that of boys. A third of women now say they rely on friends and family to get their political information; campaigns should develop on-line techniques.
  • Targeted television ads: Women still watch some TV. The right programs to reach them varies by market, but can include early morning, late night, and weekend broadcast programs - when working women are more likely to be home - and smart cable buys like ABC Family, Lifetime, and TNT. For example, HGTV Sunday programs were a much better way to reach undecided women voters last October than buying nightly network news, which airs when many working women aren't home and those who are had already decided whether to vote for Obama or McCain.
  • Reaching working women will remain a growing challenge for campaigns, but those that find creative ways to connect with these busy women will be rewarded at the polls.

    Amy Gershkoff, Ph.D.
    , is the Managing Partner of Changing Targets Media, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm. Celinda Lake is a pollster, a nationally recognized expert on women voters, and co-author of What Women Really Want.

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