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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.

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It’s a nice argument from anecdote, but the story line doesn’t fit the facts. As feminist scholar Jane Mansbridge documented, “Despite intuitive convictions to the contrary, the gender gap was largely traceable to gender-related differences in attitudes toward violence and war, while ‘the ERA and possibly abortion’ had essentially no role in the matter.”

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The public may believe that abortion is the issue that most separates male and female voters, but numbers show otherwise. As Gallup summarized, “Over the past three decades, men and women have consistently held similar views about the extent to which abortion should be legal.”

A majority of Americans say abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. In the past few years, slightly more women than men report holding more absolute views on abortion, but they represent both sides of the debate. About 1 in 4 women say abortion should be legal under any circumstances, but about 1 in 5 women say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

Third, focus on what matters most to women.

The largest and most enduring gender-based differences on policy are on government care for the vulnerable and the use of military force. Women are more supportive of social welfare programs, and they are less likely to favor war.

This election season, however, these potentially divisive subjects are not top-of-mind. When asked to name the most important problem facing the country today, 7 of 10 voters mention economic issues – on this, both men and women agree. The GOP should take a page from President Clinton’s playbook. In 2012, as in 1992, the message for women (and men) should be “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Let Democrats waste their energies trying to woo women on “reproductive rights.” They will shore up their base and alienate the middle. Republicans may have a hard time winning more women with proposed cuts to the social safety net, but they will resonate with almost all voters if they focus on the economy and jobs.

Fourth, consider the gender gap in context.

It is only one of many “gaps” in voting behavior, and far from the largest. In recent decades, men and women have indeed voted differently, with women trending Democratic and men trending Republican. But in many cases, the apparent gap between men and women is within the margin of sampling error.

Consider a few other gaps that might better be described as chasms. In the recent Pew survey, the gap between African Americans and whites who support Obama is 55 points. The gap between secular voters and white evangelicals is 50 points.

Of course, women’s preferences for party and candidate are important. But Republicans can win and have won the White House without winning a majority of the women’s vote. 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.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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