Will women voters say, 'It's just Herman being Herman'?

A gender gap is a common problem for Republican presidential nominees. Allegations of sexual harassment and impropriety against Herman Cain would hardly help him win over women voters.

Darryl Webb/AP
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain addresses the media on Nov. 8, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Cain was responding to Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, who accused Cain on Monday of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997.

Let’s say, just for a moment, that GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain isn’t undone by the allegations of sexual harassment that have sent his already-disorganized campaign into total disarray and recast the charming Washington outsider as a cad. Instead, imagine that Mr. Cain outlasts the story and that GOP primary voters, lacking enthusiasm for other Republican candidates, somehow catapult Cain into the unlikely position of nominee.

 Surely President Obama’s campaign staff would welcome the opportunity to go head to head with the politically weakened former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. And they'd be delighted for many reasons, not least this: It’s possible the accusations against Cain have alienated some, many even, women voters. And it’s their strength at the polls each November election that helps tip presidential contests. 

Think soccer moms, security moms, Wal-Mart moms.

Can the GOP afford to field a contender with that liability? Since the 1980 presidential contest, Republicans have experienced a women deficit; a greater proportion of women than men have backed the Democratic candidate, according to data culled by the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

In the 2008 cycle, the gender gap was 7 percentage points. Over the last three decades, the greatest edge – 11 points – benefitted President Bill Clinton over GOP nominee Bob Dole in 1996. The narrowest gender gap was evident in the 1992 election when Mr. Clinton bested incumbent President George H.W. Bush – but Ross Perot’s third-party bid complicated that contest.

“The Republican candidate, whoever he is, is going to face this phenomenon,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “The question is what happens when you layer on an issue like sexual harassment.”

Women outvote men in contemporary presidential contests, Ms. Walsh says. She says women are galvanized, not as some may surmise by social issues such as abortion and equal rights, but by economic issues. In addition to responsibilities on the home front, they make less money than men. They save less for retirement. And they live longer, making social safety net programs even more critical. The Cain episode could cause them to reflect about the treatment of women in the workplace – and, by extension, the abilities of women to help provide for their families. 

So far, though, Republican women have been forgiving, dissmissive even, of the controversy surrounding Cain, according to poll released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The survey, in the field from Nov. 3-6 – before two women made their accusations public – indicates that 24 percent of Republican women believe the allegations against Cain are true, 46 percent said they are false, and 30 percent don't know. Democratic women had the reverse reaction; 54 percent said the stories are true, 12 said false, and 34 percent said they don't know.

Meanwhile, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, they also assumed co-ownership of the political agenda in Washington. And Democrats suggest that the rancor in Washington is a turnoff for many women. Republican-led fights over reproductive health issues, for example, instead of a focus on stabilizing the economy and creating jobs will hurt the party in 2012, no matter the nominee, says Democratic pollster Margie Omero, president and founder of Momentum Analysis in Washington.

“In presidential years and in all years, there’s usually a gender gap that Democrats benefit from, and that’s a result of the fact that we have candidates that are really trying to address the things that make households tick,” Ms. Omero says. “In the current climate, Republicans are poised to widen that gap further this time around.”

A Cain nomination could hurt the party with women off all backgrounds and political leanings. 

Sexual harassment, Walsh says, “is one of those experiences that cuts across the ideological spectrum.” 

Cain’s flat-out denials of impropriety, and his categorization of one of the women who has stepped forward as “troubled,” could leave some women voters skeptical of his character. Women “understand the reluctance” of other women to tell their stories given the high-stakes public circumstances, Walsh says.

“There’s a lot of repercussions that happen to women who step out,” Walsh says.

But Republicans know that women can speak clearly, and privately, with their votes in November.

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