Sexual Politics

Hillary Clinton Vs. the GOP Boys’ Club: Fighting for the Female Vote

If Republicans want to win in 2016, they need to start getting smart about appealing to female voters. By Lloyd Green.

10.21.13 9:45 AM ET

For the first time in five years, Hillary Rodham Clinton was back on the campaign trail this past weekend, plugging away for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee and long-time Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe at a “Women for Terry” gathering. Clinton spoke about “common sense and common ground,” while McAuliffe hammered away on abortion rights and women’s health. According to the polls, McAuliffe continues to lead Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and is boosted by a 20 percent margin among women.

All this should give Republicans pause, especially if the GOP intends to narrow a two-decades-old gender gap in voter support. To win in 2016, the GOP must show itself capable of addressing things that affect day-to-day life, which has been proven to appeal to female voters, as well as the Democratic Party.  Otherwise it should expect to wander in the wilderness in the coming years.

Right now, it seems Republicans are still not quite grasping the significance of female support. Last Tuesday, Newark’s Cory Booker defeated a Tea Party firebrand to win election to the U.S. Senate by just over 10 points, but his advantage among females was nearly twice that number. Booker may have had problems, but his opponent's hostility towards modernity sealed the deal. Meanwhile, in New York City’s mayoral contest, Republican Joe Lhota’s uphill battle to gain support in a Democratic stronghold became even more difficult as he stood idly by while three women were escorted from a campaign stop at a Brooklyn synagogue simply because, well, they were women.

Cuccinelli’s and Lhota’s woes are emblematic of the Republicans’ problem of being perceived as an out-of-touch boys club, focused only on appeasing male voters. The last time women cast a plurality for the Republican presidential nominee was in 1988. It’s not like female support is minor; since 1964, women have cast the majority of votes in presidential elections.

To put the importance of females voters into perspective, consider this: Barack Obama’s reelection was made possible by his 11-point win among women, which more than compensated for his seven-point deficit among men. In 2012, women were 53 percent of the electorate, and in elections it’s about the numbers.

In politics, gender isn’t destiny. Unfortunately, Republicans seem to ham-handedly touch the hot buttons all too frequently. Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock are the ultimate poster children of politicians are damaging the GOP’s reputation when it comes to any issues dealing with women’s rights. During their respective 2012 campaigns, Akin announced that pregnancy rarely occurs as the result of “legitimate rape,” and Mourdock let folks know that “even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”   

To be sure, discussing abortion does not have to be a deal-breaker for pro-life Republicans with tact and political savvy, even in Deep Blue or Purple States, despite the fact that the majority of Democrats and females are pro-choice. Just look at New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Iowa’s Terry Branstad.

During a 2011 appearance on Meet the Press, Christie declared, “I am pro-life, I believe in exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. That’s my position, take it or leave it.” Yet, Christie holds more than a 25-point lead over his opponent Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono as he seeks reelection, and garners support from nearly sixty percent of women. Lest anyone has forgotten, the last time New Jersey voted for a Republican for President was 1988.

So how did Christie do it?  For starters, the pugilistic Governor framed his record as being about results, as opposed to partisan politics. He embraced President Obama during and after Hurricane Sandy, while letting it be known that government also has its limits. Christie also won endorsements and plaudits from building trade unions, even as he earned the enmity of public service unions. Divide and conquer can still work.

Most of all, Christie projected normalcy and showed that he could do nuance. For women, that talent carries added weight. Just ask Mitt Romney.

Women saved Romney from possible defeat in the Michigan and Ohio Republican presidential primaries, where men were less kindly disposed to the one-time, one-term Massachusetts Governor. Indeed, in the Florida primary Romney bounced back from the beating he took in South Carolina by winning an absolute majority of Sunshine State women.

Mitt may have had a problem with the 47 percent, but he made Republican women comfortable. Newt Gingrich he was not.

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Normalcy also works in Iowa for pro-life Republican Governor Terry Branstad. In 2010, Branstad returned to office after a 12-year hiatus by handily defeating the Democratic incumbent. What makes Branstad’s story remarkable is that Iowa is a Democratic-leaning Purple State. Since 1992, Iowa has repeatedly gone with the winner of the popular vote. In 2008, Iowa went for Obama by 10 percent, and in 2012 it went for him by six.

Branstad won by focusing on the things that matter to all constituents—issues like budgets, taxes, broadband and education. As for Obamacare, he joined the constitutional challenge to the law, but once the Supreme Court upheld it, he saluted the flag. As The Economist described, “Branstad’s trick is not that mysterious.”

In contrast to New Jersey’s and Iowa’s incumbents stands Cuccinelli, who has made ideology a fetish and reality something to be shunned. In the Republican Party’s most recent Saturday radio address, Cuccinelli attempted to use his wife’s fecundity as a rationale for his Obamacare opposition. “Today our citizens are deeply concerned about…what kind of country will we hand to our children,” he said. “As a husband and proud father of seven, my wife and I share these concerns. That’s why I stood up and said Obamacare is not right for Virginia.”

Pragmatism may not be as fun as bombast, but they definitely have a place in politics, even with today’s divided electorate. With a Hillary Clinton candidacy more likely than not, centrism and triagulation will be the order of the day. Already, early polls show Clinton threatening in the South. Thus, the question is whether the GOP cares enough about women and winning to notice.