It’s fall, people, and you know what that means, right? Kids are back in school, Congress is back in session, and since it’s an election year, the political industrial complex of America has just remembered the oft-forgotten fact that women make up more than half of the electorate and, therefore, probably should have been more than half of what politicians and campaigns were thinking about and talking about for the last three and a half years.
What’s done is done. So, let’s not harp on the fact that most elected officials are men, most political consultants are men, and most political pollsters are men. Or the fact that many men have a habit of forgetting anything they don’t really want to remember. They’re going to know when the Redskins are playing on Monday Night Football, but will they remember parent-teacher night? My sources are skeptical.
Other than remembering that female voters exist, are different from men, and will decide the election, I think my favorite thing about this time of an election year is the way the female electorate is discussed in the press like an exotic, unknowable species. In 2016, the most complicated, yet most prized, among the species has become the Suburban Woman, the once social beast who used to walk among us, but now spends most of her time driving carpool, texting babysitters and communicating primarily with other members of her tribe.
With such remote behavior, political professionals have traditionally only been able to understand the Suburban Woman by where she shops (“Wal-Mart Moms”), what her kids do for fun (Soccer Moms), or the one issue she probably cares about given world events (Security Moms). Headlines in 2016 will ask the eternal questions about this mysterious creature, like, “What do suburban women want?” They’ll try to figure out whatever happened to all those Soccer Moms? And my favorite, for its sheer offensiveness, they’ll declare candidate X officially interested in “wooing suburban women voters.”
As a public service, I feel compelled here to come clean that I myself am a suburban woman voter. After years as an urbanite, I was in denial until last week, when my husband suggested we get a minivan, with a built-in vacuum cleaner. After pausing to absorb the horror of this idea, I said no thanks. But reality had dawned nonetheless.
So to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all of the other campaigns scratching their heads about how they’ll be able to get the support of suburban women in eight short weeks, I’m sharing three observations from what I’ve seen this cycle as both a political reporter and an embed among the most coveted group of voters this cycle:
1. The “women’s vote” does not exist. Like many voting blocks, suburban women are not monolithic and often share nothing more in common than their gender. Will Melania Trump and Ellen DeGeneres vote the same way because they’re both white, married women over 45 with country houses? Will you and your mother-in-law? What do you think?
2. Women who have had babies have not also had lobotomies. The Trump campaign has signaled that his new outreach to minority voters is really about winning over suburban women who have been offended by his verbal diarrhea over the last year. But the suburban women I routinely speak with have been paying attention throughout the campaign cycle. Just being less offensive from now on isn’t going to do the trick. Having a kid at home and a suburban zip code isn’t going to change that.
3. If there’s an X factor I’ve encountered this cycle speaking to suburban women at campaign events and rallies, it’s character, namely a search for clues among the two presidential candidates and members of Congress that these are people of good character. They know we can’t anticipate what the next president or Congress will face, but they want to know our leaders will do the right thing when the time comes. That they won’t lie to us. That they’ll do what’s best for the country and make Americans proud of them and of themselves.
In a perfect world, their next president would also substantially improve the economy, make the country a safer place for children, no matter where they live, and use the United States’ global influence to make the world itself safer and more stable.
Since it’s not a perfect world, most suburban women I talk to seem ready to settle for someone who won’t lie to them. But even that seems a tall order in 2016.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.