The Gender Gap and the American Presidential Election

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Common Dreams

The Gender Gap and the American Presidential Election

Will the gender gap that decisively helped Bill Clinton and Barack Obama win the presidency again? Only if women remember who waged the 'war against women', against their economic equality and against their reproductive rights

Who will capture American women’s hearts and help President Obama or Governor Romney win the Presidency next November?

This is the question that the two major parties and their political analysts try to answer every four years. Should we appeal to them as soccer moms? Working mothers who need broader benefits? Waitresses who are single parents? What do we say about abortion? Economic equality with men?

A century ago, this was the dream of American suffragists who hoped that newly-enfranchised women would be decisive in affecting electoral politics. But it wasn’t until 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for President, that their dream began to be realized in the United States. By 1980, more women worked outside the home, lived alone, and voted independently of their fathers and husbands. Even though women’s votes didn’t defeat Reagan, they created what has been called the first gender gap which is the difference between the proportion of women and men who vote for the winning candidate. Since 1980, American women—especially African American women--have decisively helped Bill Clinton and Barack Obama win the presidency.

This year, the grueling Republican primaries provided American women with ample opportunity to hear the Tea Party’s fringe proposals to repeal the right to abortion, end contraception and the “”morning after pill,” ban funding for Planned Parenthood, cut government spending for services for women and children, and block legislation that would provide women with equal pay--even as they cut the taxes of the wealthy.

The media started calling their assaults on women “the war against women.” And it did make women angry. When polled in early April, women revealed their simmering rage. A USA Today/Gallup poll showed that “President Obama has emerged with an impressive lead in swing states around the country — thanks to women voters abandoning the GOP in droves, showing President Obama leading among women voters in the top dozen battleground states by a whopping 18 points — greater than the 12-point gender gap he won with in 2008. The president leads him (Romney) 2-1 in this group.”

As Parma Levy noted in Talking Points Memo, the poll also revealed that 41 percent of women, compared to 24 percent of men, described themselves as Democrats.

Since Democrats held no primaries to challenge Obama, they quietly cheered at women’s support in these vital states. They continued to support women’s rights and let Mitt Romney hang himself with his own pandering to the Tea Party. Women’s groups, too, felt confident that such a fierce campaign against the rights of women would most likely help re-elect President Obama.

Mitt Romney didn’t help himself by appearing to have no convictions. As Governor of Massachusetts, he had supported a woman’s right to abortion and had created the only universal health care program in the country to which everyone had to contribute. During the primaries, however, he needed the votes of the extreme right-wing. Suddenly, he stood up against women’s reproductive rights and swore to help repeal “Obamacare,” which was based on his own innovative health care program for Massachusetts. The media began to call him a “flip flopper.”

For all these reasons, many Democrats and women activists assumed that there would be a strong backlash against the Republican’s agenda to repeal or block women’s rights, giving Obama a tremendous advantage. And that’s exactly what happened during April and May as magazines and newspapers competed to cover the “war on women.”

By May 20, a New York Times editorial summed up what they called “The Campaign Against Women.” They noted that seven states had banned abortion twenty weeks after fertilization, which violates the 1973 Roe v. Wade constitutional decision and that several governors had eliminated public funds to Planned Parenthood, which mostly provides health care to low-income women, even though abortion is only a small part of their medical services. When the Senate re-authorized the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which protects women from domestic violence, Romney and his fellow Republicans refused to include gay, American Indian, student and immigrant women. The Times editorial ended with these tough words: "The Republican assault on women’s rights and health is undeniable, severe and continuing.”

Nevertheless, Mitt Romney is seeking some way to convince women that President Obama is the source of their problems. He blames women’s poverty and economic insecurity on excessive government spending. Yet he supports Republican efforts to block stimulation of the economy, which would help them. Instead, he backs lower taxes for the wealthy and deeper cuts for social services for the women, children and the disabled.

In such a precarious economy, his argument may or may not work. Nevertheless, Romney is gaining, not losing women voters. By late May a new poll showed that Obama was losing some female support. One reason may be that extreme right-wing women, who detested Romney, have now decided they will vote for anyone except Obama.

Obama has disappointed his base by not using the bully pulpit to publicize his many accomplishments. What he should now do is showcase his considerable achievements. He has, for example, supported women as workers, and citizens, not only as reproductive vehicles. But will the woman who receives a fairer salary realize how hard Obama worked for that legislation?

He also ended the gag rule that eliminated money for women’s health care and family planning; supported Planned Parenthood, passed the “Lilly Ledbetter” legislation that gives working women greater rights against discrimination, fought for the Paycheck Fairness Act (blocked by Senate Republicans), passed the first universal health care program in American history, affirmed the right of same-sex marriage, and sought to soften the blow of college tuition.

After a very short hiatus, “women’s issues” have once again resurfaced. During a heated national debate that questioned whether the “morning after” pill constituted abortion, Romney refused to take a position and remained completely silent. He then supported Republican Senators who successfully blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act that would have provided women workers with greater equality with men. At present, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. (Forty years ago, it was 59 cents.)

An American presidential election is a grueling and bizarre process.  But while you’re watching, remember that both candidates will be trying to win women’s support---because it will be decisive. Still, times have changed. The Tea Party successfully moved Republicans to the far right during the last two years. A moderate Republican is now considered an endangered species. As a result, Romney now faces the difficulty of appealing to the general public, as well as to the right-wing extremists he pandered to during the Republican primaries.

Still, the election is five months away. For some women, the “War against Women” may not obviously include high unemployment and layoffs. They may even conclude that Romney could fix the economy. One terrorist attack could change the entire electoral landscape, despite Obama’s relentless efforts to portray himself as an aggressive military defender of national security. Finally, the European economy may also decide the American election. Eduarto Porter, a New York Times business columnist recently wrote what is usually only whispered, that “Obama’s fate rests in part on Europe.”

In 2008, hope fueled the millions of people -- especially women and the young -- who campaigned so passionately for Barack Obama. This time, fear, anger and despair will determine the outcome of the election. A Gender Gap will emerge only if women remember who waged the war against women, who fought against their economic inequality and their reproductive rights, and who refused to stimulate the economy to lower unemployment and create a future for American youth.

Ruth Rosen

Ruth Rosen, a journalist and historian, is professor emerita of history at the University of California, Davis and a visiting professor of public policy and history at UC Berkeley. For 11 years, she wrote op-ed columns for the Los Angeles Times, and from 2000-2004 she worked full-time as a political columnist and editorial page writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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