The Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz is neck-and-neck going into the campaign’s final weeks, but new polling suggests abortion rights and inflation are key issues in winning an important constituency: Pennsylvania women.
While a majority of men ranked the economy as their top priority when deciding which candidate to support, female respondents were evenly divided between that issue and abortion, the recent Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll showed.
Pennsylvania has 8.8 million registered voters and females make up about half of that electorate, a critical voting bloc in a contest that could decide whether Democrats maintain their slim majority in the U.S. Senate. And they are being asked, in many cases, to choose between broader concerns about the well-being of the country and individual rights that male voters can’t relate to.
“You basically have a push-pull dynamic going on, where women are torn between social issues and the issues of the economy,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
Overall, the poll released earlier this week gave Fetterman, the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor, a six-point advantage over Oz, showing he’s ahead of the TV physician by 46% to 40%. Still, the Democrat’s lead has dwindled from nearly double-digits early in the summer, as Republicans flood the airwaves with ads and dump millions of dollars into the contest.
Fetterwoman: Fetterman leads Dr. Oz by double-digits
Fetterman — who dubbed himself “Fetterwoman” in a recent rally in support of abortion rights — is maintaining a much stronger lead when it comes to female voters. They backed the Democrat over Oz by a margin of 48-35, according to the poll.
The gap between the candidates is much wider in the governor’s race, where Democrat Josh Shapiro is about 11 percentage points ahead of GOP nominee, Doug Mastriano. Like Fetterman, Shapiro polled even better among women, according to the Suffolk University/USA TODAY survey.
And women were far more likely than men to name abortion rights as their top issue this election, the poll found, although the economy was the most popular choice for male and female voters alike.
Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies Pennsylvania voting patterns, said these dynamics are reflected in the candidates’ strategies for both the Senate and gubernatorial races.
“It’s clear that Dr. Oz is not eager to make this a campaign about abortion and has been really avoiding as much as possible answering concrete questions about his position on abortion,” she said.
For instance, Fetterman’s campaign has pounded away at Oz to disclose whether he’d vote for a national 15-week abortion ban if elected to the Senate. So far, Oz has only offered a vague response, reiterating his firm “pro-life” beliefs but saying he thinks abortion access should be regulated by the states.
Similarly, in the governor’s race, Shapiro has relentlessly attacked Mastriano as an extremist on reproductive issues — while the Republican has quietly taken down some of his anti-abortion content since he won the primary. Though Mastriano has voiced support for criminalizing abortion, “that’s no longer a visible part of his campaign,” Putnam said.
Dana Paul, of Levittown in Bucks County, said she’s made up her mind to support Oz in the Senate race but is still on the fence when it comes to the gubernatorial contest. She doesn’t yet know much about Mastriano, and even as a registered GOP voter, Paul said she knows “sometimes a Republican can be a complete butthead.”
The economy and abortion access are high priorities for her; though she identifies as “pro-life” for herself, she said she believes women have the right to make decisions about their own pregnancies.
And with inflation and the threat of a coming recession, she worries she’ll never save up enough to buy a home for herself and her children, even though she’s making decent money.
“Three years ago, it would have been beautiful. I would have been able to save so much money,” she said. “But now … I literally have nothing left when I’m done paying for everything.”
Lee Proctor, an independent who lives in Shippenville in Clarion County, said she plans to vote for Fetterman and Shapiro and that abortion rights are one of her biggest concerns going into the election.
Though the military veteran was once registered as a Republican, she left the party because she felt it was violating the principles she’d sworn to defend as a member of the U.S Army. And she said Mastriano’s stance on abortion is one of the reasons she could never support him.
“I personally am pro-life, but that’s for me. That’s for my body,” she said. “I am pro-choice for other people. Everyone has different circumstances.”
The survey released Monday showed 16% of women polled said they’re unsure who will get their vote on election day, while only 4% of men were still undecided about the Senate contest.
Women also expressed greater levels of uncertainty about the governor’s race, with 17% of female respondents saying they still didn’t know who they’d support compared to only 9% of men, the poll showed.
However, other recent polls in Pennsylvania have found a smaller gender discrepancy when it comes to undecided voters, and a couple of them have even shown higher levels of uncertainty among men. So Putnam said she suspects the high undecided number in the Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll is a statistical anomaly.
The survey of 500 likely midterm voters was conducted from Sept. 27 to 30 using landlines and cellphones. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.