Back in February, things started to look dire for the Romney campaign’s ability to attract female voters. Every day brought another story about Republican attacks on reproductive rights: attacks on insurance coverage for contraception, transvaginal probes, all-male panels called in Congress to discuss contraception, attacks on Planned Parenthood’s funding, and the candidate himself increasingly afraid to say a positive word about contraception when asked directly in the debates. A gender gap opened up between the candidates in the polls, with Obama outpacing Romney with women by 19 points. The Romney campaign responded by trying to change the subject, to jobs and the economy. But if Romney wants to close the gender gap, he should rethink that strategy. After all, the polling data suggests that his stance on economic issues – specifically the size of the safety net and amount of economic support the government provides to citizens – is what’s really hurting him with female voters.
The real war between the sexes may not be over feminism or sex so much as whether or not our tax dollars should go to social spending. Research conducted by Pew in October 2011 showed women support a strong, activist government in much larger numbers than men. On the question of whether the government should offer more services, women said yes by 9 more percentage points than men. The gender gap on social spending remained when pollsters asked about specific interest groups. Women wanted more spending on the elderly than did men by 11 percentage points, more spending on children by 10 percentage points and more spending on the poor by 9 percentage points.
Female voters respond much more strongly than male voters to government providing pragmatic solutions and real-world support for ordinary citizens, which helps explain why women flock to Obama and to the Democrats in general. In fact, with college-educated white voters, the gender differences are nothing short of astounding. In this group, female voters prefer Obama 60 to 40, and male voters prefer Romney 57 to 39.
As the lingering downturn puts economic issues front and center in the election, a ballooning gender gap was entirely predictable. Voters cite healthcare and economic issues as their top concerns, and with all the discussion of the student loan crisis of late, that will likely become part of the larger concerns about jobs and the economy. Knowing this, Romney wants to keep talking about these issues.
Support for healthcare reform remains low, at 43 percent, but as the public learns more about what the Affordable Health Care Act provides, the polling numbers have been creeping up a bit. With female voters, the uptick has been swift, with 47 percent of female voters supporting the new law in late March, 10 percentage points up from November. Student loan debt is another issue where women lean more to the left than men. In a recent Daily Kos/SEIU poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, more women than men – by 6 percentage points – supported legislation to keep student loan rates low, a policy that, because of congressional Republicans’ protest, voters strongly associate with Democrats, not Republicans.
Not that reproductive health issues don’t matter to female voters, but women voters have a more expansive view of what meaningful contraception policy looks like. They don’t just want the government to protect the legal right to use contraception; they also want it to enact policies that make sure birth control is affordable for all women, regardless of income. Fifty-five percent of women cite government contraception policy as an important issue for them, compared with 35 percent of men, according to Gallup. By requiring insurance companies to cover contraception and by protecting Planned Parenthood’s funding, the Obama administration appealed to female voters’ preference for a government that offers services as well as ensures reproductive rights.
Judging by Obama’s re-election website, his campaign grasps that the candidate’s popularity with women rests on this image of him as compassionate and committed to pragmatic solutions. Last week the campaign released a slideshow illustrating a generic woman named “Julia” as she lived through major life milestones. In the slideshow, we see Julia as a baby, a student, a worker, a mother and an elderly woman, with information every step of the way on how Obama’s policies help her more than Romney’s would. Student debt relief, equal pay, and healthcare reform figure prominently as government programs that simply make women’s lives better. It may not be a soaring speech or a fleet of fighter jets syncing their flight patterns to “God Bless America,” but it’s very much the getting-stuff-done approach to governance that wins over the ladies.
Conservative pundits responded to the Julia ad in a way that made one wonder if they want to dismantle all of Romney’s hard work pleading for female voters to give him a chance. As reported by Politico, right-wing pundits crawled over each other to make fun of female voters for finding this pragmatic approach to governance appealing. The phrase “nanny state” was tossed about promiscuously. To make the whole thing even more alienating for female voters, the phrase itself is loaded with poorly concealed misogyny, as it was clearly coined in the belief that there’s nothing lowlier than a woman offering care.
All of this is why it’s unlikely that Romney will close the gender gap using current tactics. Not that Romney has much of an alternative. If he softened his approach to social spending, the voters he already has – in the majority male – will probably grow disgusted with him. Unfortunately for him, being stuck on the male side of the line is bad news for any campaign. Women tend to outvote men by 4 percentage points, or roughly 8 million votes in a presidential election. Simply by being the ladies man, Obama has already secured a solid numerical advantage in 2012.