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Women say it’s time to reopen America — safely

Shift in attitudes among female voters has implications for both parties

Women want America reopened safely — but reopened nevertheless — and that’s a surprising shift, especially as we see certain states and regions experiencing an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases.

That’s what our recent June 13-15 Winning the Issues survey found as we tried to assess the mood of an electorate struggling with continuing health concerns as the economy reopens, now complicated by turmoil in cities across the country. 

To understand this big turnaround by women, some context is probably helpful.  

Our data shows that Americans are certainly not naïve or undereducated on the coronavirus. In fact, our survey shows people are much smarter and observant than the elites give them credit for. 

We asked them to assess the coronavirus situation and found that the percentage describing it as “starting to improve” has declined from 32 percent at the end of May to 27 percent by mid-June.

Those who thought the virus was “getting worse” went from 22 percent to 30 percent during that same time frame. Twenty-one percent said they thought things had stayed about the same, no change from May but down from 26 percent in April. Clearly, people are aware that some states are seeing a rise in coronavirus cases.

The survey, however, didn’t tell us whether a consensus had formed about how efforts to rein in the virus are going. Still, the view that the virus may be getting worse was seen across the board and not isolated to one group. 

Republicans are still much more positive, with 43 percent seeing the situation as improving and 18 percent saying it was about the same. Nineteen percent believed it was getting worse. Not surprisingly given the depth of the partisan divide these days, Democrats were the mirror opposite with 42 percent telling us that things were getting worse and only 18 percent saying the situation was getting better. Twenty-one percent were in the “about the same” category.

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Second wave worries

The survey also showed continuing concern among voters about the possibility of a second wave of the coronavirus, a fact that should get the attention of policymakers in both parties. We asked two related questions to get a handle on how people were feeling about the prognosis for a second wave.

“How concerned are you about a second wave of coronavirus cases once the restrictions are loosened and states begin to re-open?”

 And whether they expected “there will be a second wave that will force closures and restrictions again across much of the country.”

Seventy-two percent of respondents were concerned about a second wave, a number that has remained above 70 percent since April. By a margin of 60 percent to 21 percent, voters also said they expected such a wave that would trigger more shutdowns, a small uptick from May when the margin was 56 percent to 23 percent.

The American people are realists, if nothing else. But they are also pragmatists, and nothing shows that better than the reading we got on how voters, especially women, feel and what they want in terms of the economy going forward.

Despite voter concerns and misgivings about the virus, we found support for reopening the country has not wavered. 

In the survey, we gave people a choice. 

Should states be able to open up at a limited level or is it too soon to begin to return to normal? 

Voters haven’t changed much since last month when they favored reopening by a 53 percent to 35 percent margin, compared with 55 percent to 35 percent now. Republicans are the most supportive of reopening at 72 percent to 20 percent, followed by independents at 49 percent to 38 percent. Democrats were more neutral, 43 percent supportive of reopening and 46 percent who weren’t. (In May, they were against reopening by a 38 percent to 49 percent margin.) What impact the protests, especially the violence of the past three weeks, has had on these numbers remains to be seen, but the confluence of some increases in coronavirus cases coupled with the continued chaos on our streets, can’t help but affect voter concerns and attitudes.

A surprising shift

But here’s where it gets interesting. In earlier surveys, women had been the most reluctant about reopening the economy, based, in large part, on their concerns over health. In April, they opposed reopening by a wide margin, 62 percent to 25 percent. In this latest survey, over 50 percent of women now supported reopening, 51 percent to 37 percent. That’s a huge shift. 

Here’s what I think it means. Women now see that the country not working is not working. Their kids not being in school, missing key learning time, is not working either — for them, their children or their families. A majority has come to the conclusion that neither they nor the country can continue like this.  

This major shift in women’s attitude toward reopening is likely to have significant economic, societal and political implications for Republicans and Democrats alike. 

The survey also found that social distancing and masks have become key parts of that equation and building public confidence. Overall support for reopening increases further when social distancing and masks are added to the question, going from 55 percent to 35 percent in the initial test to 64 percent to 25 percent.  

Among women, who were among the most hesitant about reopening just weeks ago, their support for reopening increased to 61 percent to 27 percent if masks and social distancing are added to the mix. Looking at just the women who said they were concerned about a second wave, they favored reopening by a 48 percent to 43 percent margin. But when safety features were included, we saw them favor reopening by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 61 percent to 31 percent.

What is clear from these numbers is that we now have an electorate that believes we need to keep the economy moving forward; and rather than shutting down again, we have to find ways to mitigate and prevent new cases while still pressing on with economic recovery in a safe way. And women are now on board.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the electorate has never seen this as an either/or choice between the health situation and the economy. They expect policymakers to find ways to balance both. A majority of the electorate believes the statement that given the current crisis, the choice between focusing on either the coronavirus or the economy is a false choice.

The U.S. economy has shown remarkable resilience considering the sudden dire circumstances of the shutdown. We still have a long way to go, particularly in addressing the millions of newly unemployed. But it is clear that the electorate believes we need to keep pressing on toward economic progress and reopening — done in as safe a manner as possible — and not waiting for the country to fully recover.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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