In the heated debate on abortion unleashed by Rep. Todd Akin’s comments last weekend, the gender gap has been cast as a Republican-Romney-Ryan problem with women. And it’s true that the current double-digit lead that President Obama enjoys among female voters in some national and statewide surveys is alarming. Yet it is not insurmountable. In fact, Obama has a big gender gap among men, who seem way past buyer’s remorse with him and headed to product recall.
As the “war on women” rhetoric shows, Democrats seem to want to speak to women only from the waist down. To win, Republicans should call their bluff and address women from the waist up as well, especially their heads and hearts, where economic worries are key.
The gender gap between Mitt Romney and Obama reflects a decades-old partisan split between the sexes. But increasing numbers of men and women now call themselves independents — 33 percent of women and 43 percent of men, according to the Pew Research Center. Some of them are swing voters, but nearly all of them are sick of politics and therefore, ironically, are persuadable voters.
For more than 40 years, women have been the most reliable voting bloc, outnumbering men at the ballot box. Both political parties have cruised to power in recent elections on the strength of the female vote. In 2008, Obama got 56 percent of women’s votes, an astonishing number for a non-incumbent. Two years later, women favored Republicans over Democrats for Congress, 49 percent to 48 percent, in what was widely seen as a rebuke of the first two years of the Obama administration.
What women want from candidates could not be more clear. In a poll my firm just completed for Lifetime television with Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, 41 percent of women said a candidate’s position on the issues is the biggest deciding factor when they vote. This trumped moral character (21 percent), background/experience (17 percent), record in elected office (9 percent), political party (6 percent) and spouse (2 percent).
For five straight years, women have said the economy and jobs are top issues. Health care and education are important, too. Women were four times more likely in 2010 than in 2008 to say government spending was a top concern. They prefer candidates who provide specific solutions on security — economic, job, national, personal, health — and affordability, which means meeting the costs of everyday life and keeping their jobs, homes and savings intact.
But you wouldn’t know that by listening to politicians today. Abortion and contraception, which do not appear in the top five most important issues to women in anyone’s polling, dominate the discussion. Unable to talk about a robust economy, solid employment numbers or long-term fiscal stability, Democrats plan to bet the house on the “war on women,” giving a prominent speaking spot to the president of Planned Parenthood at the party’s convention and screaming “women’s health!” when what they really mean is abortion. They’re saying comparatively little about heart disease, obesity or cancer. They may be overplaying their hand.