WASHINGTON — In past presidential elections, Veronica Deveso could have told you by now who she was backing and why. Not this time.
All the former taxi dispatcher from Hamburg, N.Y., wants is a candidate "with a solid plan to do something, almost anything," to bolster the economy and end the Iraq war. Dissatisfied with the campaign rhetoric she’s heard so far, Deveso, 56, remains "right at the top of that wall and could fall either way."
The wall she’s perched on is crowded. White women age 45 to 64, like Deveso, are one of this year’s most hotly contested voting blocs. They’re evenly divided between Barack Obama and John McCain and wide open to being pulled either way, according to a recent Associated Press-GfK Poll.
There are plenty of them, too, prompting both presidential campaigns to woo them vigorously. About 1 in 6 voters in the 2004 presidential election was a white woman in that age range, exit polls showed.
These are the boomer women — middle-aged daughters of the post-World War II generation. Many have long balanced jobs with households, and often they’re acutely aware of their families’ economic pressures because they write the checks, buy the groceries and fill the gas tank.
They’re women used to demanding answers and making choices. With a worldwide economy that’s lurching toward recession, they’re demanding that the presidential candidates show them concrete solutions to the financial crisis and other problems.
"There’s a sense of precariousness" among these women, said Frederick Lynch, a government professor at California’s Claremont McKenna College who is researching a book on baby boomers. Women of this generation "are a little more savvy: 'Hey, bad things can happen, people can get sick, people can get laid off, and it doesn’t hurt my macho to admit that.’ "
As a group, these middle-aged white women have not yet been swayed by either contender — in contrast to black and Hispanic women, who back Obama by the same heavy proportions that minority men do. The women are split between McCain and Obama, and identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans in about equal numbers, the AP-GfK poll showed.
"If they came up with something about the economy that really made me feel like they have a really good handle on it," it would help, said Rae Ann Priester, 52, of Fresno, Calif., who is leaning toward Obama but could switch. "They’re sort of dancing around the issue."
Forty-four percent of them remain persuadable — that is, either completely undecided or favoring one candidate while conceding that they may change their minds. That’s bigger than the 33 percent of all voters who are still persuadable.
"If you’re aged right in the middle like me, it’s hard to decide," said Deborah Nance, 56, of Wilmington, Del. "Go with the seasoned guy who might get in there and die the next day, or go with the young guy who you really don’t know all that much about."
The evenly divided boomer women stand in contrast to voters overall, who polls show have leaned toward Obama since the financial crisis intensified in recent weeks. And while voters overall trust Obama more than McCain on the economy, boomer women in the AP-GfK poll are about equally split over which candidate they prefer on the issue. They narrowly say Obama better understands how the financial crisis affects them.
The poll was conducted late last month, before the candidates released economic plans.
Challenge for Obama
Persuadable boomer women have two characteristics that have made things tougher for Obama.
Most don’t have college degrees. Less-educated whites have long been a difficult group for Obama.
And, most persuadable white, middle-aged women who are Democrats supported Hillary Clinton during the primaries, according to AP-Yahoo News polls.
"A lot of them, like me, might be Hillary supporters and were shocked to find out she didn’t get the nomination," Deveso said of white, middle-aged women.
Still, there are signs Obama is faring relatively well with boomer women.
His neck-and-neck showing with McCain among them is better than the 2004 performance by John Kerry. White women age 45 to 64 favored President Bush that year by 12 percentage points.
In the recent AP-GfK survey, more boomer women said Obama understands people like them. On the other hand, more said McCain has the right experience to be president.
McCain targets women
With so much at stake, McCain has targeted middle-aged white women with TV ads, direct mail and phone calls, using a message that focuses on economic concerns, said Sarah Simmons, the campaign’s director of strategy. That message is reinforced by running mate Sarah Palin, who "speaks to them in a very profound way," Simmons said.
The Obama campaign has run roundtables, blogs and house parties for women, and it has broadcast ads on equal pay and other issues on television shows that attract female viewers. Campaign spokeswoman Moira Mack said women will play "a hugely important role in this year’s election."
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Sept. 27-30 and included cell and landline telephone interviews with 808 likely voters, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. Included were interviews with 135 likely white female voters age 45-64, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 8.4 points.
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