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Judy’s Notebook: Engaging Women and Young Voters Was Key for Obama Camp

Elections are endlessly fascinating because of the questions they pose about why voters vote the way they do.

In one of this season’s numerous post-election analyses, President Obama’s campaign pollster Joel Benenson makes it sound as if — for all the suspense in the air — the president’s re-election victory was practically foreordained. Talking to reporters at a session sponsored by the centrist think tank Third Way, Benenson described a remarkably non-changing populace despite months of dramatic ups and downs and sharp partisan clashes. “The electorate was pretty set,” he told us, with many minds solidly made up well before the fall campaign.

He critiqued the many public opinion polls that showed more intensity and excitement among Republicans, pointing out that people who had already decided how they were going to vote may well have tuned out — or even have been turned off by — a lot of the campaign “noise.”

What I found even more interesting were his comments about women and young people. Despite the campaign talk around so-called “women’s issues” such as contraception and abortion, especially after controversial comments from Republican Senate candidates in Indiana and Kentucky, Benenson insisted those were not the main drivers of the women’s vote. Instead, he said his polling consistently showed that it was the economy first, and then education, that were top of mind. He acknowledged the Obama campaign had to speak to women voters “on many levels,” and that it moved to take advantage of what it saw as intolerant positions taken by Republicans on issues like abortion. But he stressed that it was economic opportunity and access to an affordable education that most resonated with women.

As for young people, Benenson described a “generational divide” in the United States that is “profound.” (I’ll modestly add, he brought up and praised the “Generation Next” documentaries I worked on for PBS, the NewsHour and NPR in 2006 and 2007, when we interviewed dozens of young Americans between the ages of 16 and 25. He said our reporting provided a valuable understanding of this generation’s attitudes and values.)

Benenson spoke of young people today being characterized as far more tolerant than their parents and grandparents of people who are different from them, either because of race, national origin or sexual identity. These views, he said, have made them more open to immigrants, gay marriage and interracial dating — all topics on which he said the Republican party appears less tolerant. He also pointed out that they make up a pretty consistent 17 percent to 18 percent of the electorate, going back to 1992.

In perhaps an understatement, he added that given the fact most voters form their political identity in the first few elections they participate in, confronting this large population bloc “will be a big challenge for the Republicans.”

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