Republicans still have a problem with female voters
Even Republican women lawmakers seem to have difficulty communicating with women voters – and for the Republican Party, there don't appear to be any easy fixes.
A new study confirms something that we’ve known for quite some time, namely that Republicans have huge problems with female voters and it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much of anything to solve them:
A detailed report commissioned by two major Republican groups – including one backed by Karl Rove – paints a dismal picture for Republicans, concluding female voters view the party as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion” and “stuck in the past.”
Women are “barely receptive” to Republicans’ policies, and the party does “especially poorly” with women in the Northeast and Midwest, according to an internal Crossroads GPS and American Action Network report obtained by POLITICO. It was presented to a small number of senior aides this month on Capitol Hill, according to multiple sources.
Republicans swore they’d turn around the party’s performance with women after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. And while they are in good shape in 2014, poised to pick up seats in the House and possibly take the majority in the Senate, the new report shows they have not improved their standing with women – which could exacerbate their problems if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016.
The report – “Republicans and Women Voters: Huge Challenges, Real Opportunities” – was the product of eight focus groups across the country and a poll of 800 registered female voters this summer. The large-scale project was a major undertaking for the GOP groups.
“The gender gap is hardly a new phenomenon, but nevertheless, it’s important for conservatives to identify what policies best engage women, and our project found multiple opportunities,” said Dan Conston, a spokesman for the American Action Network. “It’s no surprise that conservatives have more work to do with women.”
Republicans in Washington say they recognize the problem. Republicans who have seen or been briefed on the polling were not surprised about the outcome. The poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Axis Research.
The report is blunt about the party’s problems. It says 49 percent of women view Republicans unfavorably, while 39 percent view Democrats unfavorably.
It also found that Republicans “fail to speak to women in the different circumstances in which they live” – as breadwinners, for example. “This lack of understanding and acknowledgment closes many minds to Republican policy solutions,” the report says. The groups urge Republicans to embrace policies that “are not easily framed as driven by a desire to aid employers or ‘the rich.’”
Even on fiscal matters – traditionally the party’s strongest issue set – Republicans hold only slight advantages that do not come close to outweighing their negative attributes. The GOP holds a 3 percent advantage over Democrats when female voters are asked who has “good ideas to grow the economy and create jobs,” and the same advantage on who is “fiscally responsible and can be trusted with our tax dollars.”
When female voters are asked who “wants to make health care more affordable,” Democrats have a 39 percent advantage, and a 40 percent advantage on who “looks out for the interests of women.” Democrats have a 39 percent advantage when it comes to who “is tolerant of other people’s lifestyles.”
Female voters who care about the top four issues – the economy, health care, education and jobs – vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Most striking, Democrats hold a 35-point advantage with female voters who care about jobs and a 26 percent advantage when asked which party is willing to compromise. House Republicans say jobs and the economy are their top priorities.
None of this is new, of course. The so-called “gender gap” has been a fact of American political life for decades now and has played a large role in deciding everything from the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 to Terry McAuliffe’s narrower than expected victory over Ken Cuccinelli in the 2013 Virginia governor’s race. During the 2012 presidential election, we saw it play a role in the battle for control of the Senate, thanks in no small part to exceedingly stupid comments by people like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in their effort to justify what seems to any normal person like the heartless position that even a woman who has been raped should be denied the right to an abortion. We’ve seen it as Democrats have capitalized on the efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to even further restrict the right to abortion and to push personhood amendments that would have the effect of banning some forms of contraception and, potentially, IVF procedures as well. More recently, of course, the right’s reaction to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate has helped to further alienate it from female voters.
As far as solutions go, what the study proposes is pretty straightforward:
The groups suggest a three-pronged approach to turning around their relationship with women. First, they suggest the GOP “neutralize the Democrats’ " attack that Republicans don’t support fairness for women. They suggest Republican lawmakers criticize Democrats for “growing government programs that encourage dependency rather than opportunities to get ahead.” That message tested better than explaining that the GOP supports a number of policies that could help fairness for women.
Second, the groups suggest Republicans “deal honestly with any disagreement on abortion, then move to other issues.” And third, “pursue policy innovations that inspire women voters to give the GOP a ‘fresh look.’ " The report suggests lawmakers and candidates inject “unexpected” GOP policy proposals into the debate as a way to sway female voters. Suggestions include ways to improve job-training programs, “strengthening enforcement against gender bias in the workplace” and “expanding home health-care services by allowing more health-care professionals to be paid by Medicare for home health services.”
On paper, I suppose, it sounds good. Certainly, the fact that polling indicates that economic issues remain of primary concern to female voters, notwithstanding the fact that the GOP’s long association with extremist social conservatives would seem to indicate that concentrating on so-called “pocketbook” issues would be the smart way for the GOP to deal with its problems with female voters. It doesn’t mean that we’ll see a day any time soon when women start flocking to the GOP in large numbers, of course, but if it helps to cut down the so-called “gender gap,” then it would make a difference on the margins that could tip the balance in an election. This would be especially true, it seems, in the so-called “purple” states and among suburban female voters in areas like Northern Virginia. It’s also worth noting that the “gender gap” almost completely disappears if you look at the voting patterns of married men and married women, which means that the real problem that the Republican Party has isn’t among female voters per se so much as it is with single female voters. Given that this is a growing part of the population, and that these women are likely to carry their voting attitudes over into their married lives when that time comes, of course, this doesn’t mean the problem isn’t serious. However, it isn’t insurmountable either.
The problem that the Republican Party has in this regard, of course, is two-fold. First of all, it will be next to impossible for the party to tone down the social conservative rhetoric that this survey and others indicates are so off-putting to female voters for the simple fact that social conservatives are such a substantial part of the GOP and among the most activist members of the party’s base. Not only does this mean that the party cannot afford to put them off by taking positions on issues like abortion and marriage equality that they are opposed to, but it also means that they can’t afford to ignore them in the manner that the survey’s recommendations suggest. The best example of that can be found in the recommendation a few years back from former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) that the GOP needed to declare a “truce” a social issues and concentrate on economic issues, especially for the then-upcoming 2012 elections. The reaction to Daniels’ comments from activist social conservatives was overwhelmingly negative. Anti-abortion groups and prominent Republican social conservatives attacked him for what they perceived as an abandonment of principles. Others called it “an affront to the millions of conservatives who believe that social issues such as abortion and traditional marriage are non-negotiable.” Obviously, if the GOP tried to do the same thing again, we’d see a similar reaction.
The party’s second problem, though, is one that the survey recognizes and one that is not easily fixed. Namely, it’s the simple fact that Republicans seem to not be able to understand how to communicate with female voters, and that’s a problem that even seems to extend to female Republican politicians. Until they fix that, no amount of change is going to amount to much of anything.
Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.