There was a moment in the Ann Richards campaign against George W. Bush when I knew in advance she had lost. The late governor was speaking to a Girls’ State assembly, which is a little legislature created annually for high school students to meet for a day and learn about government. Richards, in a moment of unguarded honesty, told the teens that they needed to be fully prepared for life and to be ready to fend for themselves because the chances were good that their husbands were going to leave them stuck with the mortgage, the Volkswagen payments, and the kids.
Whatever germ of truth there might have been to her commentary, the videotape of her speech was widely distributed and extensively quoted. Men picked up on a gender anger Richards had often been accused of harboring in the wake of her own marriage’s dissolution. Bush had been polling strong among male voters and his numbers increased noticeably after the Girls’ State speech by Democrat Richards. The outcome of the election seemed a foregone conclusion when she referred to him in a speech in Texarkana as “some jerk.”
Bush’s victory, in part, was a consequence of a wide margin with men voters. The current Democratic candidate for governor needs something similar to happen with women, a disproportionate turnout in her favor, which will not be simple. The Wendy Davis campaign was effectively launched with a women’s rights issue regarding choice and access to reproductive services. In recent weeks, she has aggressively attacked her opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, on the matter of equal pay for women serving in his office. Although women working as assistant attorneys general in his office earn about $3,000 less a year, Abbott has said he would have vetoed a bipartisan law passed last session to guarantee women a right to sue in a state court at any time they have learned about unfair pay.
The issues strongly position Davis with women voters but there are cross currents that can cause problems. The reproductive rights losses regarding abortion have placed pregnant women at risk with the closing of abortion clinics in Texas but there can be no certainty that this has increased the support of female Hispanic voters in South Texas. Davis must do well among Hispanics in that part of the state but the predominantly Catholic female voting population may be conflicted by her support of abortion rights given the church’s strong opposition.
Two weeks ago, a group called the Emerson College Polling Society (ECPS) conducted the first poll after the March primaries and reported that Davis had moved to within seven points of Abbott, which, obviously, was good news for her campaign. The surprising information in the poll was that the AG maintained a slight lead among women and independents. Democrats, to have any hope in a statewide race in Texas, must carry that group to win. The poll was, however, conducted prior to Davis launching her attacks on Abbott over equal pay but her women’s rights declarations had already been widely heard so their impact was measured in this poll. Oddly, it showed Abbott leading Davis among Texas women by a 46-42 percent margin.
ECPS has an automated methodology for acquiring data, and it has been quite accurate in at least two races. They predicted a 2.0 victory margin for Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race and he won by 2.5 and in the Massachussetts senate contest they accurately forecasted the 10 point victory won by Ed Markey. They use automated dialing and a series of recorded questions to a list of randomly generated phone numbers that are purchased in advance. Their Davis and Abbott tallies were taken from just 494 voters so the margin of error is relatively high at plus or minus 4.4 percent.
Regardless, it is the first data mined to indicate that some voters moved in Davis’ direction over the abortion debate. However, it has to be a bit troubling for the Democrat that those figures do not show her in a stronger position with women than Abbott. Although presidential campaign numbers do not directly translate in state elections, particularly in a traditionally conservative locale like Texas, President Obama defeated John McCain by getting 55 percent of the female electorate. McCain was an inept candidate but his efforts were significantly harmed by various GOP candidates around the country making inane and offputting statements about women.
Davis may be getting similar help from the Texas GOP. Governor Rick Perry has kept alive the equal pay controversy by calling it “ludicrous” to consider codifying the federal measure into the state’s law, and suburban housewives and single mothers are likely to become more animated as the shutdown of family services continues across Texas and complicates the lives of women. If Abbott’s equal pay refusal alienates women, political peril is the likely consequence. In Texas, women voted in 2012 election at a higher rate than men, which was 69.2% to 64.5%; they turned out in bigger numbers, as well, and, ultimately, comprised 55.2% of the electorate, compared to 44.7% for men.
If women choose, they can make Wendy Davis the governor of Texas.