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What politicians still don't understand about women voters
Terry McAuliffe's victory in Virginia proves that women have political interests beyond their ovaries
Terry McAuliffe's message to women wasn't as resonant as many believed.
Terry McAuliffe's message to women wasn't as resonant as many believed. (Getty Images/Alex Wong)
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n the aftermath of the hotly contested Virginia gubernatorial election, women got a lot of the credit for Democrat Terry McAuliffe's victory. Just before voting, a Washington Post headline ran, "Virginia women are poised to send a strong message," and at MSNBC, a story was titled, "Women's votes help Terry McAuliffe eke out a win."

But the truth is, women didn't tip the scales that drastically.

While more women did vote for McAuliffe than Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, it was not a landslide. Fifty one percent of women voted for McAuliffe, and 42 percent voted for Cuccinelli. To put that breakdown in context, it would be more accurate to say that unmarried voters gave McAuliffe his victory, since 62 percent of them voted for him and just 29 percent for Cuccinelli.

Moreover, when you examine the subgroups of female voters, it's clear that McAuliffe didn't always win a majority. To put it bluntly, "a lot of white women voted for anti-choice Ken Cuccinelli," wrote Kat Stoeffel at New York. Fifty-four percent of them, in fact, with a measly 38 percent swinging in McAuliffe's favor. Cuccinelli also won married women by a 51-42 percent margin.

Cuccinelli's decent support among women is especially interesting because he is as anti-reproductive rights as they come. Considering that he once compared abortion to slavery and refused to endorse the Violence Against Women Act (which helps combat domestic violence), he arguably held his own among female voters.

The McAuliffe campaign pounded him on these topics, but only to marginal avail. So what does this mean?

Well, it suggests that women are not as universally driven by reproductive rights and female-focused topics as Democratic politicians believe. James Hohmann at Politico wrote that the results "raise questions about whether women are starting to tune out the 'war on women' messaging and whether apocalyptic suggestions that Cuccinelli would try to ban common forms of birth control were effective at driving women to the polls."

The voting data supports this theory. McAuliffe won 59 percent of the electorate that said abortion was the most important issue, but that was only 20 percent of the voters. Speaking only to reproductive rights is not enough to win an election — or for that matter, a majority of certain women. Even a far-right candidate like Cuccinelli managed to earn about the same percentage of female votes as moderate Mitt Romney did in Virginia this past presidential election.

Furthermore, the starkly different voting patterns of women when separated by race and marital status emphasize that politicians are no longer able to generalize women as a single voting bloc.

Since female voters outnumber their male counterparts, they are considered the most highly prized voting demographic by politicians. But the latest data from Virginia shows that women are a nuanced group with various positions, making it clear that many of our elected leaders still don't know what women want.

Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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