Women slow to embrace Rick Perry

at 02:21 PM ET, 09/16/2011

Rick Perry may be surging in the GOP presidential race, but by and large, women aren’t along for the ride.

Multiple polls shows the Texas governor does well among male voters but not isn’t getting as much love from female voters.

In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, Perry led Mitt Romney 31 percent to 20 percent among men but trailed him by 1 percent among women.

A new Quinnipiac poll out Friday in Virginia shows Perry up 49 percent to 33 percent among men, but trailing the former Massachusetts governor 40 percent to 37 percent among women.

And a USC/Los Angeles Times poll of California voters earlier this month showed Perry and Romney tied at 22 percent overall, but Perry led by nine points among older men and trailed by 10 points among younger women.

The polling tells a pretty clear story about the gender gap Perry is facing. But is it here to stay? And does it matter?

Democratic pollster John Anzalone says the gap boils down to the candidates’ styles — particularly Perry’s Texas swagger.

“I think it is fairly qualitative,” Anzalone said. “Perry is a man’s man, doesn’t hold back, says what’s on his mind. Risk taker. Macho.

“Romney is more comfort, security and maturity. Someone you can bring home to mom but doesn’t light any fires.”

Whether this is a first-glance thing or a more long-lasting gap that could have a significant impact on the race, it’s worth a look at what effect it could have on Perry going forward.

(With the caveat that it’s still very early, and even Perry’s opponents haven’t seemed to grasp that the gender gap could be a major liability ... yet.)

The first problem is that women are the more elusive gender for the GOP. Women tend to lean toward the Democratic Party a little more than men, and having a Republican nominee that doesn’t appeal to female voters could cost the GOP some crucial swing voters.

This is another argument against Perry’s electability, which we previously dissected here. Essentially it goes like this: a well-rounded nominee should be able to appeal to lots of different kinds voters, and struggling amongst such a big and important voting bloc is cause for concern. (Though it should be noted that Perry does appeal to some other groups better than other Republicans, especially Latinos.)

More immediately, the gender gap could prove an issue in the GOP nominating contest. That’s because Perry probably needs a strong showing or even a win in Iowa, and his chief competition there is a woman – Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

In other words, if Perry does in fact have a problem securing the support of female voters, it could have a significant impact on his path to victory.

And third, perhaps Perry’s most significant problem coming out of Monday’s Florida debate, was his opponents hitting him over the HPV vaccine he mandated as governor. It’s not clear that the issue plays any worse among women than men (polling is piecemeal-to-non-existent on this topic), but it seems reasonable to think it could potentially drive a wedge between conservative mothers and Perry.

Quinnipiac Assistant Polling Director Peter A. Brown said Perry has work to do with women.

“Perry needs to focus on the concerns of Republican women,” Brown said. “If he can get Republican women at the level he’s getting Republican men, he’d be in very good shape.”

Perry’s campaign says any concept that their candidate has a gender problem is misguided.

“The truth? These crosstab margins of error are so large that, with these cell sizes, they mean nothing,” said Perry senior adviser David Carney. “Anyone who thinks they can distill any conclusions are full of crap.”

Of course, one could look at the same polling and come to the conclusion that while Perry might have a women problem, Romney has one with men. But Romney’s support is generally more balanced between the genders, and that was evident even before Perry got in the race.

Another argument for Perry is that, whatever the situation in Iowa, he has survived a matchup with a well-regarded female candidate before – and very recently at that.

A similar situation played out in the 2010 gubernatorial race, when Perry faced a primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). Then, as now, women were much more apt to support Hutchison early on, but by the end, it didn’t matter, and Perry won the GOP primary in a blowout.

It’s way too early to game out any specific outcomes from the current gender gap in the 2012 presidential primary, but for now, it’s there, and it’s worth watching.

And either way, it’s in Perry’s interest to try and close it. He’s got time.

“Perry should not rush out and buy a fuchsia shirt, and Romney does not need to start chewing tobacco,” GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood said. “They both need to keep honing and evolving the message that they think resonates best.”

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