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How GOP can win more women voters

Let Democrats waste their energies trying to woo women on 'reproductive rights.' They will shore up their base and alienate the middle. Republicans can win more women voters and bridge the gender gap by focusing on what is most important to women in 2012: jobs and the economy.

By Amy E. Black / March 22, 2012

Ann Romney, wife of Mitt Romney, speaks in Atlanta March 1. Democrats are accusing the GOP of a 'war against women.' Op-ed contributor Amy Black says Republicans should make the effort to win more female votes, but they should take cues from what women voters – not feminist activists – say matters most in the election: the economy.

David Tulis/AP

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Wheaton, Il.

To hear all the buzz, Republicans are at war with women. Consider Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for Bush the elder, who recently claimed “The GOP is hemorrhaging the women’s vote” and called on party leaders to turn things around quickly. As in now.

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Americans hear lots of talk about the gender gap, the difference in how men and women vote. Democratic leaders and activists focus their attention on so-called women’s issues to shore up the female vote, while Republicans wring their hands and wonder what they can do to win back the women.

Facts and historical patterns rarely get in the way of political posturing, but a reality check is certainly in order. Here are some things Republicans should keep in mind as they look to bridge the gender gap and chart a winning path to November.

First, interpret polls correctly.

Polling data are useful; they provide a good snapshot of what people are thinking at a given moment. But they are just that – an instant picture of the political landscape. The candidate poised to save the party one week is sent to the showers the next. Just ask Howard Dean or Michele Bachmann how quickly the tides of favorability can turn.

Many discussions of the gender gap misinterpret its meaning. By definition, a gender gap in voting is the margin of difference between the male and female vote for a candidate. To measure gendered support for President Obama, therefore, we calculate the difference in how many men and women say they will vote for him, not the difference between women themselves as they choose between the candidates.

In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, women preferred Mr. Obama to Republican Mitt Romney by 20 points (a large gap to be sure). That’s the kind of polling number that has Republicans such as Ms. Cary so upset, but it doesn’t tell us anything about differences between men and women. The gender gap revealed in the same poll (58 percent of women preferring Obama versus 49 percent of men) was only 9 points – still a gap, but by no means a chasm.

In the Illinois primary March 20, all four of the candidates fared about the same with women and men. The gender gap in the Romney vote, for example, was a statistically insignificant 2 points (46 percent of women to 48 percent of men).

Second, Republicans need to understand what the gender gap is actually saying about women and issues.

The term “gender gap” entered public discourse in 1980. Journalists, pundits, and pollsters combed through polling data and noticed a difference in the percentage of women and men voting for Ronald Reagan. Although Reagan appears to have edged out Jimmy Carter among women voters (46 percent to 45 percent), the gap between female and male support for Reagan was a statistically significant eight points (46 percent to 54 percent).

Activists were quick to frame the gender gap as a response to feminism. Women, supposedly angry that the Republicans reversed their stance on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and abortion, expressed their concerns at the ballot box.

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