According to pundits, the Democratic Party overplayed the “war on women” narrative in the 2014 midterm election, and this helped the GOP win key Senate and gubernatorial races, including in states carried easily by Obama in 2012. In that election, the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act — a crucial aspect of the war on women rhetoric — was hotly debated.
It wasn’t clear even in 2012 that this rhetoric worked. On the one hand, we found that supporters of the birth control mandate were more likely to vote for Obama, even after accounting for other factors.
On the other hand, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found no link between news coverage about contraception and abortion and women’s attitudes about either Obama or Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign, and little evidence that attitudes about abortion were central to moving women voters to Obama.
Regardless of whether the “war on women” messaging was actually effective, many Democratic leaders in 2014 believed that the party’s success depended in part on making it a central campaign plank. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall earned the unfortunate moniker Mark “Uterus” as his campaign devoted roughly half of his campaign ads to issues of reproductive rights. One ad, entitled “Backwards,” featured women testifying that his Republican opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, supported both making abortion a felony and banning birth control.
In the Maryland gubernatorial election, Democratic Lt. Governor Anthony Brown’s first television ad claimed that Republican candidate Larry Hogan was “dangerous,” intending to limit access to both abortion and birth control once elected governor. In both races, however, the Republican triumphed handily at the polls.
Though it is difficult to establish a connection between campaign rhetoric and voter behavior, the 2014 version of the “war on women” may not have benefited Democrats for this key reason: Democratic campaigns mistakenly conflated abortion and government-mandated insurance coverage for birth control, even though voters view these two issues through different lenses. In short, Democrats fundamentally misunderstood why there is a gender gap in American politics in the first place.
Attitudes about the size and scope of government — not abortion — are what drive the gender gap. Women are more likely than men to believe that the federal government should provide assistance to the poor, in part because women are disproportionately likely to be recipients of such government aid.
However, as the Udall ad referenced above illustrates, the rhetoric of the “war on women” often fuses the separate issues of insurance coverage for birth control with abortion rights, treating both as “culture war” issues, and this is not how most voters perceive the issue.
As our research shows, attitudes about abortion and attitudes about government-mandated insurance coverage for birth control are not strongly related. Americans view abortion largely as an issue of personal morality, akin to other “culture war” issues, such as gay rights and marijuana. By contrast, insurance coverage for birth control taps into attitudes about economic opportunity and the proper size and scope of government.
The 2014 ‘war on women’ likely was also different from 2012 because there wasn’t as stark a contrast between the parties. Republicans more deftly anticipated the Democratic line of attack, coordinating a message that emphasized support for over-the-counter access to birth control while sidestepping the government mandate on insurance coverage.
This approach contrasted sharply with 2012 Senate candidates such as Richard Mourdock (R-Indiana) and Todd Akin (R-Missouri), whose inartful comments about banning abortion even in cases of rape made national headlines and branded the party as extreme. Without these sorts of incendiary comments to dispute, the Democrats’ attempt to resurrect the “war on women” may have fallen flat.
Finally, the 2014 midterm electorate was very different from the 2012 presidential electorate. According to our analysis of the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2012 American Values Survey, nearly seven out of 10 voters under the age of 30 favored the birth control mandate, compared to just about half of voters 30 and older. This difference is nearly identical to the 70 percent of non-white voters who supported the birth control mandate in 2012, compared to about half of white voters. And, of course, fewer younger voters and fewer non-white voters turned out in 2014.
Although we do not know whether the birth control mandate motivated anyone to turn out to vote in 2012, the clear differences between young and old, and between white and non-white, suggests that targeted campaigning on insurance coverage for birth control has more potential in a presidential-year electorate.
Looking ahead to 2016, the better strategy for Democrats is to tie birth control access to broader issues of economic opportunity, pay equity, increases in the minimum wage, paid family leave, and other issues that tap into voters’ feelings about the role of government. As the work of economist Isabel Sawhill shows, the ability of women to avoid an unplanned pregnancy is a powerful tool for reducing poverty. If Democrats can persuade people that insurance coverage of birth control is a matter of economic opportunity, they will tap into the very factors that drive the gender gap in American politics.
John McTague and Melissa Deckman are political scientists at Towson University and Washington College, respectively.