Ladies’ Man

05.23.12

GOP to Women: Obama’s Your Guilty Pleasure

When did Mitt ‘rice cake’ Romney turn into a ladies’ man? Judith Grey on the GOP’s emotionally manipulative campaign to tell women they shamelessly indulged in Obama in ’08.

For a ligneous, gaffe-prone, scissor-happy, prep-school-outsider bullying, presumptive nominee of the war-on-women-waging party, Mitt Romney is sure doing well with female voters these days.

According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week, Romney is gaining on Obama’s favorability amongst women at a surprisingly rapid pace. The report indicates that the 19-point lead that the president enjoyed last month has diminished to a mere 7-point advantage in recent weeks.

What gives?

How about an emotionally manipulative, unapologetically condescending, Karl-Rove-concocted messaging strategy that preys on women’s weakness for instantly gratifying experiences coupled with their propensity for self-blame?

In effect, the right is framing Barack Obama as a guilty pleasure, saying to women—or, at the very least, implying—that the fairer sex indulged in his campaign with shameless abandon in 2008 and now they should be atoning in equal proportion.

It’s as if the president were a heedlessly devoured tub of triple-caramel-chunk cookie-dough ice cream that has left a bad taste in your mouth, not to mention a few extra inches on your waistline, and needs to be traded for the presidential equivalent of a rice cake (Romney).

That’s the Republican plan of action. And it seems to be working.

It started last summer during the debt-ceiling crisis with an ad created by Crossroads GPS, a conservative super PAC founded by Karl Rove. The commercial “Wake Up” features a young woman lying awake at night worrying about the economy and her family’s future.

Midway through the spot, the attractive, presumably single—no man is seen sleeping obliviously beside her—mother regrets, “I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. But since then, things have gone from bad to much worse.” Sitting on the side of her bed, her gaze is downturned, replete with a combination of remorse, self-reproach, and despair.

She has the look of a woman scorned with no one but herself to blame.

The ad portrays Obama as a sweet-talking, single-mom seducing, steep stimulus-spending lothario who hasn’t—surprise, surprise—delivered on his promises. How could she—and the 56 percent of women who voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election—have been so gullible?

The theme has been subtly echoed throughout much of the Republican messaging since then.

It’s as if the president were a heedlessly devoured tub of triple-caramel-chunk cookie-dough ice cream that has left a bad taste in your mouth, not to mention a few extra inches on your waistline, and needs to be traded for the presidential equivalent of a rice cake (Romney).

When Mitt Romney announced his candidacy in June of last year, for example, he invoked much of the language that is associated with a suspicious foreign suitor.

“A few years ago,” Romney commiserated, “we gave someone new a chance to lead; someone we hadn't known for very long, who didn't have much of a record but promised to lead us to a better place. At the time, we didn't know what sort of a president he would make.”

References to Obama’s oratorical skills abound.

On the eve of the launch of Obama’s reelection bid this month, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul tried to quash any groundswell of support for the president by soberingly stating that “no matter how many lofty campaign speeches President Obama gives, the fact remains that American families are struggling on his watch,” claiming that “this November, they will hold him accountable for his broken promises.”

“Broken promises”—undoubtedly language that is familiar to women when it comes to their dealings with men—is a recurring refrain. Two ads released last week draw on the terminology liberally.

Obama’s Promises,” another spot created by Crossroads GPS, displays footage on an iPad of the president making an array of promises during various speeches he has delivered since his election. As a looming male voiceover discredits each promise with a statistic from an independent third-party source, the iPad screen shatters in an uncanny domestic violence kind of way.

The Republican National Committee released a similar spot, “Empty Promises: Debt and Deficits,” which works in a parallel fashion. But in lieu of the broken glass, the legal disclosure at end of the commercial is delivered by the wavering voice of a fragile-sounding, 20-something year-old woman who might have been recently dumped by an “empty promiser” herself.

And, today, Crossroads GPS begins running an ad, innocuously entitled “Basketball,” in 10 swing states. The lovechild of notorious Republican message-meisters Larry McCarthy and Karl Rove, the commercial shows a youthful woman in her kitchen watching her children through the window. She ruminates on how she “always loved watching the kids play basketball” and still does “even though things have changed.”

At this point, she morphs into a much older version of herself, the kids have grown up and moved back home after college because they can’t find jobs. (Again, conspicuously, no husband is present—and I don’t think he’s out playing golf.)

She too “supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully,” but in this commercial, not only is she saddled with debt and economic uncertainty, she looks a lot worse as well. Before Barack Obama, she was dewy and carefree; after, she’s prematurely aged and visibly anguished.

Effectively, the Republicans have taken the “before” and “after” photo paradigm—the hallmark of aspirational marketing to women—and inverted it. It’s the antithesis of hope in a bottle.

And what woman would want to buy that a second time?