- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Political strategists and pollsters are on the hunt for the “soccer moms” and “Nascar dads” of 2008, the blocs of swing voters with enough clout to turn the tide in the presidential race.

Pollsters haven’t yet popularized catchy labels for key demographic groups, like the minivan-driving suburban “soccer moms” deemed crucial in 1996.

There is one group that’s up for grabs and could swing the election to Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain: women in their 50s and 60s without a college education.

“These women tend to be security-oriented, in the broadest sense,” said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. “They don’t want a risky choice.”

Those attitudes present a challenge for Mr. Obama, he said, but because the same women are “hard-pressed economically,” they may be receptive to the Democrat’s campaign. “They’re the ones managing the food budget, paying the health care bills,” Mr. Garin said.

Heading into the fall campaign, Mr. McCain held a 42 percent to 39 percent lead among non-college-educated white women between 50 and 69 years old in a Bloomberg-Los Angeles Times poll last month.

Mr. McCain, an Arizona senator and former prisoner of war, led Mr. Obama, the first-term Illinois senator, by large margins when the women were asked which candidate had the right experience to be president and which would best protect the United States from terrorism.

Among the same women, more than eight out of 10 said they thought the country is on the wrong track and that the economy is doing badly. Just 16 percent expected the economy to improve in the next six months. Most of the women said the situation in Iraq under Saddam Hussein wasn’t worth going to war.

Past participation patterns show that women are slightly more likely than men to vote. In the 2004 election, 65.4 percent of eligible women voted, compared with 62.1 percent of eligible men.

If the economy remains the central issue by Election Day, “you have to believe Obama has an advantage,” said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa. “If the security issue re-emerges as more potent, that will, of course, help McCain.”

Four years ago, President Bush beat Democratic Sen. John Kerry by a 2-1 margin among white, non-college-educated women between 45 and 64, according to exit polling by the Los Angeles Times. That was a dramatic turnaround from 2000, when Democrat Al Gore beat Mr. Bush 51 percent to 47 percent among that group.

This time around, holding onto those voters is essential for Mr. McCain’s chances of victory, Mr. Garin said.

“If Obama comes anyplace close to breaking even with them, he’ll win the election,” he said. “If McCain can’t replicate the kind of movement Bush achieved with this group in 2004, the Republican arithmetic will become very difficult.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are targeting other voter blocs needed for victory. Mr. McCain is trying to repeat Mr. Bush’s success with evangelicals and Hispanics. Mr. Bush won 40 percent of historically Democratic-leaning Latino voters in 2004.

Mr. Obama is working to repeat his primary campaign success in drawing black voters to the polls and is seeking record numbers of young voters, who traditionally are less likely to vote than their elders. On the downside, polls suggest older white voters, who usually turn out in large numbers, are less comfortable supporting him.

Finding the right pieces of this year’s voter puzzle is complicated because Mr. Obama, the first black candidate on a major party ticket, may upend historical trends and assumptions about voter turnout, said Karlyn Bowman, who tracks polling at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “The electoral calculus is more difficult to predict today,” she said.

In pursuing non-college-educated, older white women, Mr. Obama must appeal to voters who backed his primary opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Mr. Borick said. Mr. Obama “got killed in that group” during the primaries, he said.

Because of the sagging economy under a Republican president, those female voters should look favorably on Democrats, said Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group in Manchester, N.H. However, “at the moment, they are not buying Obama,” he said.

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