Republicans don’t have to cede women’s votes

Women tend to vote for Democrats. Men favor Republicans. That gender gap in U.S. politics is as old as the two parties themselves.

But that generalization insults both genders and lets politicians off the hook. Rather than wait for the young to get old and the single to get married to gain new supporters, the Republican Party can make up lost ground among the 53 percent of voters who will decide this election: women.

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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.

This should mean that Republicans have an opening. To capi­tal­ize on it, Romney and Paul Ryan should turn to metrics and big ideas. They love those things. Turns out, so do women.

Just the facts, ma’am. Since Obama took office, the unemployment rate for women has increased from 7 percent to 8.1 percent, and the number of unemployed women has increased by 860,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Housing values and net worths have decreased, while the cost of food and fuel has increased. The extreme poverty rate is one of the highest ever recorded among women.

Show them the (wasted) money. Billions of dollars for bailouts, stimulus and pet projects such as Solyndra have led to a $16 trillion national debt. As many women are scraping and sacrificing, they wonder why Washington can’t do the same. The classic question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” is not a close call. Add to it “Four more years of what?” and stir.

Messengers matter. Seeing is the first step toward believing. And women trust people they like and who seem like them. Sarah Palin rocked the GOP convention hall four years ago as the vice presidential nominee on this combination. Stop saying you are a successful businessman and start further showcasing successful businesswomen, such as Richmond’s Melissa Ball of Ball Office Products, who would flourish and hire in a “Romneyconomy.” Get rid of the “mom jeans” and put some real moms on stage.

Rattle the incumbent’s complacency. One of Obama’s advantages is that he is already in the White House. Politically, female voters often stick with what they know, unless and until given a reason to change. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each increased their share of the female vote by seven or eight percentage points from their first election. This formula would put Obama at well over 60 percent, which seems implausible.

Get out of the mosh pit. Negative advertising may work, but women think the nasty back-and-forth of who is the bigger liar is unbecoming of a leader. Hold Obama to his (prophetic) words upon accepting his party’s nomination in 2008: “If you don’t have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.”

Be optimistic. Women gravitate toward candidates who seem pleasant and positive. With the exception of 1972, for 50 years women have favored the presidential contender they have seen as more optimistic. Obama cornered this market in 2008 but now seems more gloom-and-doom than hope-and-change. Reagan was not simply a great communicator, he was an affable and accessible one.

Women are not single-issue thinkers or voters. They may like the president, but in 2012, math is a more important subject than chemistry. Obama himself said that if his administration did not turn around the economy in three years, he’d be a one-term president. That’s a promise we hope he keeps, because a political gender gap is nothing compared with a national prosperity gap.

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, is the president of the Polling Company Inc./WomanTrend. Follow her on Twitter @kellyannepolls.

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