The Golden Girls of 2022

New Hampshire votingAP/Charles Krupa

Voters cast their ballots, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, at a polling station in Derry, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Every election year, pundits identify a certain group of the electorate as critical to the outcome. Angry white men were credited for giving rise to Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his Contract with America following the 1994 midterms. Soccer moms — or suburban white women — rescued Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. Disaffected noncollege-educated rural voterswere critical for Donald Trump’s unexpected win in 2016. Black women led the Democratic resurgence in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Political science research suggests that the focus on a single group of voters, especially with a catchy name like “Soccer moms,” is a framing strategy for journalists to create a “hook” or “peg” for their news stories surrounding the campaign. Researchers also argue that significant shifts in voting patterns in the American electorate can be led by subgroups within the population.

The 2022 midterms appear to be another election in which a key subgroup may determine whether Republicans pick up a significant number of congressional, gubernatorial and legislative seats around the country, or if Democrats can hold their own or make modest gains in an election in which the president’s party typically loses seats.

Because of voter attitudes, issues central to this year’s campaigns and contextual factors, women older than 50 — the Golden Girls — are poised to be the electoral subgroup that makes its mark in 2022.

Historically, women over the age of 50 have the highest voter participation rates in midterm elections. This group of voters made up 31 percent of the electorate in 2018 with a gender gap of just more than 2 percent — more than 3 percent more women ages 50-65 voted than men of the same age, but slightly more men 65 years and older voted than women. Surveys by AARP in April and the Meredith Poll in late September found that this group was highly motivated to vote in the midterms — with more than three-quarters indicating that they were likely to vote.

The AARP poll found that almost two-thirds of women older than 50 were undecided and going to wait until the last few weeks of the campaign to make up their minds. Likewise, women older than 50 in the Meredith Poll were the biggest group of undecided voters in the highest profile race in the 2022 election in North Carolina—the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Rep. Ted Budd. With key races in North Carolina and other states extremely tight just four weeks from Election Day, this group of voters could determine the outcome of these races and, consequently, which party controls both chambers of Congress.

When it comes to the 2022 midterm campaigns, women age 50 and older hold policy positions that could change their historical voting tendencies — typically, 50-65-year-old women favor Democrats and women older than 65 favor Republicans. In the Meredith Poll results, women age 50 and older were more motivated to vote because of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision than any other group, including younger women. Similarly, this group of women voters is less likely to favor complete bans on abortion and more likely to favor modest restrictions on abortion access — like 15-week limits or exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the pregnant person — than other groups of voters. In key races in which there are stark differences between the positions of Democratic and Republican candidates, like in North Carolina’s only swing congressional district — the 13th — enough Republican women age 50 and older could cross over and help Democrat Wiley Nickel win.

Inflation, on the other hand, could cause late-deciding women age 50 and older to support Republican candidates in key races. The AARP poll found that almost 60 percent of this group considered rising prices to be the most important issue to them, and almost three-quarters were concerned that they would not have enough income to keep up with inflation. With gas prices creeping up again in the final weeks of the campaign, this group of women voters could help carry Budd and Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance over the finish line.

While current issues may be more energizing than in previous midterm elections, two other contextual factors could drive the Golden Girls’ voting behaviors — dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and belief that democracy is endangered. In the most recent Meredith Poll, women age 50 and older were the group most dissatisfied with the direction of the country and most concerned that democracy was under eminent threat. Typically, the high level of dissatisfaction would mean that women age 50 and older would trend Republican in 2022, but with a majority of Republican candidates for Congress this year denying the election results from 2020, their fundamental belief in the importance of elections in maintaining a constitutional republic may overcome the belief in punishing Democrats.

In 2018, Black women voted in force in part as backlash against former President Trump’s behavior and policies perceived as hostile to that subgroup. This year, however, it is likely that women age 50 and older may push back against the Supreme Court overturning a 49-year precedent on abortion rights and a perception that the Grand Experiment of American democracy is under threat.

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