Aja Sutter is the kind of voter the Democrats could not afford to lose this year. The 26-year-old physical therapist, part of a cohort of unmarried women that has long been one of the most reliable Democratic bases, enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
But in last week's midterm election, Sutter cast her ballot for Republicans, frustrated by the administration's lack of progress in righting the economy
"A lot of the things that were promised, in my opinion, didn't happen, and I wasn't satisfied," said Sutter, who noted that many of her female friends, feeling let down and ignored by politicians, did not even bother to vote.
That disappointment and apathy translated into a jolting drop in female support this year for House Democrats, who won just 48% of the women's vote, down from 55% four years ago, according to exit polls. Republicans edged them out with 49% of the overall female vote, the best showing for the GOP — other than in 2002 — since the gender gap emerged in the 1980s, when women began to vote more Democratic than men.
That's in part because married women, who usually split their vote between the two parties, leaned more strongly Republican this year, according to Democratic voter surveys.
But Democrats also lost ground among single women, historically one of the party's most loyal demographic groups. Unmarried women still voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates this year, but by a narrower margin than in recent elections.
That's because half of white, unmarried women voted Republican this year, up from 39% in the last two election cycles, according to a poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
Liberal women's advocates and Democratic strategists said the falloff in female support spoke to a failure by President Obama and Democratic leaders to prove they had a plan to ease their financial stresses.
"I think women just did not see an economic narrative that was meaningful to them," said pollster Celinda Lake. "It really has to speak to the kitchen table. It can't just speak to banks and Wall Street."
During a year when the economy was the dominant concern in the electorate, single women were likely to feel those pressures even more acutely.
"Unmarried women are the most economically vulnerable group, particularly if they have children," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "While there has been a lot of discussion in this recession about men and manufacturing jobs, it still is the case that unmarried women are the poorest. If they feel their concerns aren't being addressed by Obama and the Democrats around the economy, it sort of makes some sense there was a decline."
A large part of the swing among unmarried, white women was because of the sharp drop in support for Democrats among senior citizens, said Page Gardner, founder of the advocacy group Women's Voices, Women Vote, who said the organization's focus groups found seniors were scared by "the misconceptions around what would happen with healthcare and Medicare."
Republicans also benefited as married women broke for GOP candidates, favoring them by 54%, a bump of 4 percentage points from the last midterm election, according to a survey by Lake.
That did not surprise Charity Fritz, 32, as she rocked a double stroller carrying her toddler and 4-month-old during a recent outing at a Tysons Corner mall.
"I think the economy is probably a stronger motivator than party lines at this point," said Fritz, who declined to say how she voted. Her husband, who recently got out of the military, is still looking for a job, and the couple is anxious about paying for preschool.
"Women's issues and things that typically play into elections, I don't think they played as much a role as the economy," she said. "I think that was the key issue for everybody this time."
But some women's groups favoring abortion rights said that Democrats could have motivated more women if they had focused on issues such as healthcare and abortion. In particular, activists said liberal women were demoralized by a measure in the new healthcare law that will restrict how private insurance companies can offer abortion services.
"The Democrats really lost a lot of credibility with women because of the restrictions on abortion care," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "The White House did not fight for women in healthcare. We consider it a betrayal."
O'Neill said that made it harder to rally her members, who had been incredibly energized in 2008. "Women did not go door to door and they did not get on the phone in large numbers," she said. "A lot of women said, this is same old, same old, this is not helping me."
White House spokesman Bill Burton called O'Neill's comments "unfortunate," adding that they were "not reflective of how hard the president has and will continue to fight for issues of deep concern to women."
There are some signs that Democrats who raised abortion on the campaign trail fared better with women voters. In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet made a late play for female voters in part by attacking his opponent's antiabortion stance as extreme. Meanwhile, outside groups suggested that Republican Ken Buck, a former district attorney, had not aggressively prosecuted a rape case.
Bennet pulled 56% of the women's vote, helping him eke out a 1-percentage-point win.
Democratic women's groups are determined to regain the margins they lost this year. Executives at Emily's List, which backs candidates who support abortion rights, are already sifting through polling and research to formulate a plan to get more female voters in 2012.
"The one thing Democratic women said they needed was clearer info about candidates, something we intend to do more of — and earlier," said President Stephanie Schriock. "And we've got to break through on the economy. In this country, at this time, you can't take any group for granted."