What Mitt Romney should be saying to women voters this Mother's Day

Polls show Mitt Romney trailing President Obama among women voters. This Mother's Day, to close the gender gap Romney will need to do more than flag Obama's failed economic record. He needs to push policies that appeal to women, like more workplace flexibility and better child care.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Mitt Romney, and his wife Ann, talk to reporters on his campaign plane before taking off for Boston, in Columbus, Ohio, March 6. President Obama's popularity among women, minorities and independents is giving him an early edge over Mr. Romney, according to a new AP-GfK poll. Op-ed contributor David Gray says 'Pocketbook issues matter to women' but 'criticizing Obama and his policies is not enough.'

Mitt Romney knows he has to do better in attracting women voters. After controversial comments by GOP leaders about contraception and Planned Parenthood during the heat of the primary season, polls show that Mr. Romney’s standing among women has been impacted and that he trails President Obama in critical swing states with female voters by a 2 to 1 margin (according to a a recent USA Today/Gallup survey).

Romney has responded to this deficit by holding recent campaign events at female-owned small businesses and by attacking Mr. Obama’s economic policies, claiming they are not good for women. But this Mother’s Day gives Romney an opportunity to make real progress in closing the gender gap with Obama through two important areas of emphasis.

First, Romney should continue to criticize Obama’s record on economic issues. Pocketbook issues matter to women. The Pew Research Center reported in 2008 that by an almost 2 to 1 margin, women share that they make the majority of the budget decisions in their household. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has revealed that nearly 40 percent of working women now out-earn their husbands.

Romney should tailor his general criticisms of Obama – his handling of the economy, lack of sufficient job creation, and deficit-expanding fiscal and health-care policies – to appeal specifically to women. Add to it the impact of high gas prices on those who frequently drive children to activities and Romney has a story to tell about the president’s failed economic approach that should particularly resonate with women voters.

Yet criticizing Obama and his policies is not enough. To really move the needle with women, Romney needs a positive policy agenda of ideas that appeal to women specifically.

Two issues might be considered: workplace flexibility and quality child care. These areas of focus aren’t important to women exclusively, but they are important to many women.

US businesses are increasingly adopting more workplace flexibility and are providing these flexible work arrangements as a way to recruit and retain employees – especially women. Encouraging flexibility in the way work gets done so that employees can succeed both on the job and with their families has promise to appeal to women voters who often struggle with work-family balance.

Given that private industry is increasingly seeing flexibility as a valuable business practice, Romney could talk about workplace flexibility without alienating his pro-business, free-market base. Romney could also propose a number of federal policy approaches he would champion as president that support flexibility but do not commit much federal spending nor discourage business creativity as some mandates would.

Policies that encourage telework, compressed workweeks, alternative work schedules, job shares, and reduced work hours such as incentives to industry, awards for best practices and modest tweaking of the Fair Labor Standards Act, could make a difference.

If Romney even just talked around Mother’s Day about appreciating the work-life challenges many women face he would likely get the attention of and boost his appeal with women voters.

Secondly, beyond workplace flexibility, Romney should talk about the struggles working women and families face finding affordable, quality child care. Child care is a major expense for most American dual-earner families with young children. In the vast majority of states, the average cost of infant child care exceeds the cost of annual in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges.

Romney could follow the example of President George H.W. Bush and consider how the tax code and vouchers can support families trying to afford child care. Mr. Bush campaigned in 1988 for child tax credits to help low income families with children and signed the main federal child-care support program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, into law in 1990.

Moreover, as research continues to show the importance of the earliest years in life to brain development, the quality of the care children receive matters. However, most states lack standards such as licensing requirements, inspections, and background checks to ensure that children are being cared for in safe, effective, and enriching settings. Because Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina has introduced legislation to address some of these quality issues, Romney would have cover with his base to talk about improving the quality of child care in the United States.

The general election campaign has begun and the next few weeks and months will be critical in shaping how voters view the candidates. To win, Romney must close the gender gap with his opponent. He needs to offer an effective critique of Obama that appeals specifically to women voters, but Romney also needs a positive agenda that addresses the needs and concerns of American women. A combination of pocketbook issues and social polices could help.

David Gray is director of the Workforce and Family Program at the New America Foundation.

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