After spending the last few years talking about “war on women” issues like abortion laws, equal pay, and contraception, and with commentators lampooning Republican efforts to appeal to female voters, it was expected that the 2014 midterm elections would come down to the “gender gap,” the difference between how men and women vote in the election.
Well, the pundits were right: the political “gender gap” would decide the fate of candidates in the 2014 midterms. But the decisive point wasn’t that Republicans have a female voter problem. It was that Democrats have a male voter problem.
Contrary to popular belief, women are not always a solidly Democratic voting bloc, though they do tend to break slightly more Democratic than men do. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans actually did slightly better than Democrats among female voters nationwide, winning 49 percent of their votes for Congress. But certainly in the last presidential election, in the wake of awful comments about rape and birth control from a small handful of absolute morons, it wasn’t hard to paint the entire GOP as anti-woman.
During this election, Democrats doubled-down on the strategy of bludgeoning Republicans with “women’s issues” scare tactics. They were aided by the national controversy around this summer’s Supreme Court ruling that allowed Hobby Lobby, a privately owned company, to opt out of providing employees with insurance coverage for some forms of contraception. They were energized by the emergence of a figure like Wendy Davis in Texas, who rose to national prominence following her filibuster over a law increasing regulations on abortion clinics and prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Candidates like Mark Udall in Colorado made these issues a centerpiece of their campaigns, if not the primary rationale for why the Republican ought not be elected. In the Colorado example, by the time election day rolled around, Udall’s own donors were openly criticizing the campaign’s decision to pound the “women’s issues” theme as the only real message he had. Meanwhile, his Republican opponent Cory Gardner had come out as vocally pro-contraception and was eager to move on to other topics.
On election day, Mark Udall did win female voters by an eight-point margin. But he lost male voters by 17 points.
It was a pattern repeated nationwide. In Iowa, Republican candidate for Senate Joni Ernst—the first woman Iowa has ever sent to Washington as an elected representative—tied her opponent, Democrat Bruce Braley, among female voters. She won men by 18 points. Or take, for instance, the unexpectedly non-competitive race in Georgia, where a Republican man defeated a Democratic woman; the Democratic candidate won female voters by eight percentage points but lost men by a staggering 23 points.
Let’s get this out of the way first: it wasn’t about abortion. In Colorado, where a “personhood” amendment was on the ballot that would have dramatically restricted abortion and certain forms of contraception, it failed with 63 percent of men and 66 percent of women voting “no”—hardly a “gender gap” to be found.
No, instead, it turns out that when your message is very clearly aimed at pandering to or terrifying one slice of voters, the rest of the electorate says “no thanks.” “Please, oppressors, bring your male privilege to the polls for us” isn’t exactly a message that wins you hearts and minds, no matter how many Lena Dunham appeals you make. And with men seeing wages stagnate and economic opportunity drying up, hammering home a message about the “war on women” is tone-deaf at best.
Republicans definitely have work to do at ensuring they can compete with female voters. The prospect of running against a potential first female President of the United States in two years should keep Republicans vigilant about the need to speak to women and win their votes.
There are ways to do it well without being divisive: Democratic policies like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was sold with a promise that it would give women “equal pay for equal work,” have done nothing to close the wage gap during Obama’s presidency, and Republicans should call Democrats out on how their policies have failed to deliver. The best thing for women’s economic standing—as well as men’s—is a growing economy, and the gap closed significantly more during the 1980s and early 1990’s under Reagan and the first President Bush than under any modern Democratic president.
Democrats have, in their attempts to rally one group of voters, failed to win over women in a serious way but have sent men the message that men are the problem or their economic concerns don’t really matter.
There’s a gender gap in politics, for sure. But it backfired on Democrats in the midterms. And in the process, it sent the youngest woman ever to Congress (a Republican) and the first female Senators from Iowa and West Virginia (both Republicans).
Not such a bad night for women after all.