Politics

04.13.12

How Ted Kennedy Took On Mitt Romney’s Women Problem

A look at Romney’s previous campaigns shows how Ted Kennedy and other opponents targeted his weakness with female voters—especially when it came to the economy.

As the 1994 Senate election pitting Mitt Romney against Ted Kennedy approached, it was all coming down the women’s vote. “When the race drew close, in late August, early September, the biggest target group of voters were women, particularly non-college-educated working women,” says Tad Devine, who served as a senior Kennedy adviser. 

Romney had reason to think he had a chance with this constituency. On abortion, there was little daylight between the two men. Kennedy, meanwhile, had an unhelpful reputation for womanizing and dissolution. Only three years earlier, he’d had to testify at the high-profile rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, who had met his accuser during a night of carousing with his uncle. In the Republican primary, Janet Jeghelian had touted her ability to exploit Kennedy’s “trouble with women.” Romney, chiseled and wholesome, might have thought he could do the same by highlighting his evident devotion to his picturesque family.  “They made a real point to paint him as a really dedicated family man and husband,” says  Scott Helman, co-author of The Real Romney. “He really cast himself as a Kennedy foil.”

None of it mattered. When the election came, Kennedy crushed Romney among women, winning their votes by more than two to one.

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Michelle Goldberg gives her take on the Hilary Rosen controversy

Now, once again, we’re entering an election in which women voters are proving pivotal. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed President Obama ahead of Romney with women, the majority of the electorate, by 19 percentage points. Democratic strategists see women as the key to victory; according to a recent report from Third Way, Obama’s electoral fortunes could depend on his ability to win over secular female swing voters.

Spooked, the Romney campaign has responded with projection, saying that it’s actually Obama who is waging a war on women through his economic policies. His advisers have deployed Romney’s wife Ann in an attempt to humanize the candidate, and when Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen said that Ann had “never worked a day in her life,” they seized on it, apparently hoping it would help them garner sympathy with mothers.

They seem to believe that now that the Republican primary is over and social issues like abortion and contraception have momentarily faded from the headlines, they can somehow change the narrative about Romney and women. Perhaps they’re right, but a look at Romney’s political career suggests that his problems with female voters long predate the current political season, and it will take more than a few spasms of manufactured umbrage on behalf of stay-at-home-moms to make them go away. 

There was actually a moment in the 1994 race when many were predicting Kennedy’s defeat.  In a desperate bid for women’s votes, he went after Romney’s religion, saying that he should explain his stand on the Mormon Church’s pre-1978 ban on black priests and its continuing refusal to ordain women. (The Catholic Church, of course, doesn’t ordain women either, but Kennedy said that it should.) That line of attack backfired, sparking bipartisan disgust. “Religious Politicking Could Seal Kennedy’s Doom,” ran one headline.

Then Kennedy’s campaign tried a new tack, prefiguring one we’re likely to see from Obama this fall. “We made a case against [Romney] focused first of all on his record on business,” says Devine.  Kennedy’s staff zeroed in on two aspects of that record—layoffs, particularly of women, at companies taken over by Bain, and the absence of women in senior management positions at Bain itself.

According to a 1994 Boston Globe story, “The team [Romney] put together to manage Bain Capital is exclusively white and male, all educated at the best business schools, mostly Harvard. There are no minorities among the 95 vice presidents of Bain & Co. Only 10 percent are women, though a woman chairs the board.” In a rather insensitive response, Romney claimed that consulting is “a profession that has yet to attract many women and minorities.” All this made it into a Kennedy commercial.

Other ads were set in Marion, Indiana, the home of Ampad, a stationary factory that Bain bought under Romney. Since the takeover, The New York Times reported, “Management has shed 41 of 265 blue-collar jobs, cut wages, tripled some workers’ health-insurance payments, abolished most of their seniority rights, and junked the prior management’s union contract, which had two years to run.” In Kennedy’s commercials, a parade of white working-class people, many women, spoke bitterly about Bain’s record. “I would like to say to Mitt Romney, if you think you’d make such a good senator, come out here to Marion, Indiana, and see what your company has done to these people,” one woman said.

The spots worked. “Those women voters, they moved big time once they got messages on Romney that were principally economic messages,” says Devine.

Six years after his crushing loss to Kennedy, Romney ran for governor, facing off against a woman, Massachusetts state treasurer Shannon O’Brien. Mindful of the gender dynamics, he chose a female running mate, Kerry Murphy Healey, but initially proved unable to feign much respect for her. In a radio interview, he explained that he and Healy appealed to different constituencies, adding, “That is what has drawn me to Sherry.”  Later, he infuriated feminists when, during a debate, he said that O’Brien’s attempts to challenge him on abortion rights was “unbecoming.”

Of course, Romney won that election, partly by hammering O’Brien on her support for lowering the age of parental consent for abortion to 16. But once again, he lost women voters, who went for O’Brien by 9 percent. “I won with women, but not by enough,” she says.

This time around, Romney’s problems with women will only be magnified by the fact that he’s now running as a strident foe of abortion who also wants to end all federal government support for family planning. Hoping to turn things around, he recently started criticizing President Obama for the 683,000 jobs that women have lost during his presidency. What he doesn’t mention is that most of those jobs were due to cuts in government payrolls that he wants to slash even further. As The New York Times Economix blog reported, “[S]ince President Obama took office, nearly four-fifths of all the jobs lost have been in the female-dominated government sector.”

“I would like to say to Mitt Romney, if you think you’d make such a good senator, come out here to Marion, Indiana, and see what your company has done to these people,” one woman said.

On Wednesday, after Romney started hurling the war-on-women charge at Obama, reporters on a conference call asked his policy director, Lanhee Chen, whether Romney supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Chen was unable to answer, and the campaign later said that Romney is “not looking to change current law,” a less-than-ringing endorsement. All this adds up to a candidate who is not willing to do anything on a policy level to appeal to women voters.

Even when he’s trying to use his charming wife Ann to try and bridge the gender divide, a basic tone-deafness creeps through. Last week, he said that his wife “reports to me regularly” on what women care about, suggesting a disinclination to listen to women directly. Rosen was certainly wrong to minimize the work Ann Romney has done in bringing up five sons. She was absolutely right, though, to point out that Ann has “never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing,” and is thus hardly equipped to be her husband’s primary source of intelligence on the challenges confronting American women. 

Similarly, the Romney camp recently released an ad narrated by Ann and clearly directed at female voters. In it, she says that when her boys were young, “often I had more than five sons, I had six sons.” Maybe some women find a man who treats his wife like his mother to be endearing, but it’s hard to imagine that women skeptical about Romney’s commitment to equality will be swayed.  

“I don’t think he would know women’s issues from an Evinrude motor,” says Elizabeth Sherman, an American University professor who founded the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  “You get the feeling from this guy that he just doesn’t get it.” He never has. That’s unlikely to change in the next seven months.