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Gubernatorial rivals focus on subsets of female voters

Both campaigns have to make a heavy play for independents, whatever their gender.
Both campaigns have to make a heavy play for independents, whatever their gender.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File

You’ve heard the sound bites.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley declares, in her latest television advertisement, that she is a “powerful advocate for women and kids.” And Republican Charlie Baker would like you to know that he is “100 percent pro-choice.”

But campaign operatives and outside analysts say the war for women’s votes this fall is about more than snippets, slogans, or “sweetheart,” the word Baker recently used when speaking to a female reporter.

It is, at bottom, about numbers: the number of married (more conservative) versus unmarried (more liberal) women who turn up at the polls, for instance, or the number of independent women who break Democratic or Republican in the campaign’s final hours.

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And all of it, they say, will feed into a larger battle of the sexes that should, if recent electoral math is any guide, determine who is the next governor of Massachusetts.

Consider this: In every major Massachusetts race in recent memory, Democrats have prevailed when they have run up the tally with women and held down the Republicans’ margin among men, and GOP candidates have triumphed when they have pulled off the opposite.

Both of this year’s gubernatorial candidates have found themselves on the losing side of that equation in the recent past: Coakley in her US Senate race against Scott Brown in 2010 and Baker in his gubernatorial challenge to Deval Patrick later that year.

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Baker beat Patrick by a solid 13 points among men, but lost by a whopping 24 points among women, according to a postelection survey by the MassInc Polling Group.

Still, Frank Perullo, president of the Democratic political consulting firm Sage Systems, which prepared for the Globe an analysis of male and female voting patterns in recent Massachusetts races, said Baker starts this fall’s gender wars in a reasonably strong position.

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He has already demonstrated that he can perform well with men in a competitive election. And while Patrick crushed him on the women’s vote four years ago, a Democratic victory of that size seems unlikely to repeat itself.

“I think Deval Patrick is a special candidate,” said Perullo, noting that Patrick built substantially larger margins with women in his two gubernatorial campaigns than any other Massachusetts Democrat in memory, including female candidates such as Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The latest weekly Globe poll suggests that Baker is in a more competitive position this fall than he was at the end of the 2010 race. He has narrowed the deficit among women from 24 percentage points four years ago to 15 percentage points now. And he leads Coakley 40 to 38 percent overall.

But Democrats say they are pleased with Coakley’s still-strong lead with women. And they insist she has the message to maintain it. Part of that message is hitting Baker for being insufficiently sensitive to women’s issues.

When the Republican said last week that he would need to see more data before he would call on National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign, Coakley pounced. (Baker later called for the resignation.) A few days later, Democrats piled on when Baker referred to a female reporter as “sweetheart.” It was, they said, a sexist dismissal. (Baker said he was kidding, then apologized.)

But Coakley’s message is broader than that. On a recent weekday morning, she stood in the backyard of a home-based day-care center in Lawrence, flanked by female day-care providers and the city’s mayor, Daniel Rivera.

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Rivera talked of being raised by a single mother. And Coakley touted her plan for 17,000 new state-funded preschool slots. “We do know it is one thing that is going to make a huge difference for every single child,” she said into a bank of television cameras.

The candidate wrapped the proposal in a broader call for “a prosperous and fair Massachusetts,” emphasizing her support for a ballot measure that would guarantee earned sick time for workers. Coakley has also lauded the state’s increased minimum wage and called for equal pay for women.

A July survey by prominent national Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, spanning a dozen states, suggests this sort of economic populism is especially well attuned to women, particularly unmarried women, who make up roughly one-quarter of the electorate and are a crucial bloc for Democrats.

“They want candidates to walk in their shoes and understand their lives,” said Page Gardner, chief executive of the Washington-based Voter Participation Center, which commissioned the Greenberg poll as part of its push to boost voter turnout among unmarried women.

Energizing unmarried women, from young single mothers to those who are middle-aged and divorced, is a matter of particular urgency for Democrats in nonpresidential election years, when those voters tend to skip elections in large numbers.

In Massachusetts, the Voter Participation Center is projecting a 26 percent drop in turnout among unmarried women in 2014 from 2012 levels, compared with a 22 percent decline for married women.

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But if the math on unmarried women is a concern for Democrats, Coakley’s strong performance among married women is serving as a crucial bulwark. An amalgam of six weeks of Globe surveys from August and September shows her with a big lead, 45 to 30 percentage points, with this demographic.

John Della Volpe, chief executive of SocialSphere Inc., which conducts the Globe’s polling, says the 15-point spread should be of concern to Baker. But the Republican, he said, has room for growth with this traditionally centrist portion of the electorate.

“This race could be decided on how Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker do among that slice: married women,” said Della Volpe.

Baker’s hard-edged 2010 campaign was widely seen as a turn-off for women. And this time around, he has engaged in a complete overhaul of his public persona. The new Baker – the authentic one, supporters say – is politically moderate and personally warm.

Last week, at a “Women for Charlie” event in Boston, Baker sat on a small stage with his running mate, Karyn Polito, and told 360 supporters stories about his family life. He talked about the political debates his mother, a Democrat, and his father, a Republican, had at the dining room table when he was growing up in Needham. And he recalled the moment, years later, that he learned his third child would be a girl.

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“When we had the ultrasound and the doctor looked up at us and said, ‘You’re going to have a princess,’ we both pretty much exploded. It was one of the happiest days,” he said, trailing off as he teared up.

On the tables surrounding the stage, the campaign left dozens of “Women for Charlie” pamphlets urging attendees to volunteer for door-to-door canvassing or telephone banks. And it is that get-out-the-vote effort, chaired by Polito and Baker’s wife, Lauren, that is at the heart of the campaign’s effort to shrink the gender gap.

“Women for Charlie,” which takes over Baker’s 20 field offices on Wednesday nights and specializes in outreach to women voters, has made about half of the campaign’s roughly 1 million voter contacts to date.

But for all the gender-based targeting, both sides insist they see women voters as more than just a monolithic constituency.

Coakley’s campaign needs a strong turnout from black and Latino women, who are among the most reliable Democratic voters. Baker has to energize voters, male and female alike, in crucial conservative redoubts such as the South Shore and Worcester suburbs. And both campaigns have to make a heavy play for independents, whatever their gender.

But it just so happens that female independents, in particular, are among the most prized demographics in the Massachusetts electorate, operatives say, prone to moving back and forth among the parties and often among the last to decide in a close election.

Globe polling from August and September shows Coakley narrowly leading among this group, 33 to 30 percent. And with time running short in the election, nearly four in 10 are undecided.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.