Asked what she would be looking for on Election Night, Cokie Roberts said on ABC’s Sunday show: “I’m going to be watching women. I’m very curious to know whether this year Republicans have done to women what they’ve managed to do to Hispanics and blacks.” What she meant, of course, is that the extreme rhetoric that has driven down the GOP’s share of two major voting blocs now threatens to damage the party with another even larger group—women, who are more than half the electorate.
A larger-than-usual gender gap, 18 points, is a central factor in returning President Obama to the White House for a second term. The skepticism among women about Mitt Romney dates back to the Republican primaries, when the former governor, eager to court social conservatives, said he supported a “personhood” amendment that would confer full legal rights on a fertilized egg and potentially criminalize some forms of contraception, and that if elected president he would “get rid of” Planned Parenthood.
Romney’s attack on the venerable Planned Parenthood turned out to be a gold mine for Democrats.
“When you gave people reasons to vote against Romney, Planned Parenthood and 47 percent [Romney’s secretly taped analysis of the electorate] were at the top of the list,” says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. “It’s not about abortion. It’s about women having a modern role, and [Republicans have] taken it to another level where they’re talking about people losing contraception.”
What Greenberg calls the rising American electorate—young people, minorities, and single women—represents “demographic cultural attitudinal changes” that led to a shift in world view and reelected the first black president despite a weak economy, he says. Republicans do better with married women than women who are single, but that’s small comfort to the GOP with women today waiting to get married, having children later, or having children without getting married.
Republicans traditionally have fared better in upscale suburbs, but a surge of voters in northern Virginia and in the Philadelphia area returned those states to Obama. What struck women as a GOP obsession with contraception began during the primaries when Rick Santorum, who is Catholic and the father of seven children, introduced the idea of a state ban on contraceptives. Asked if he would support such a ban, Romney replied that he supported contraception, adding, “It’s working just fine.”
It was a rare instance when Romney didn’t adopt the most extreme position of his party. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney supported abortion rights, a position he abandoned when he decided to run for president. “The Republican Party will never be pro-choice,” says a GOP strategist who does not want to be quoted seeming to disparage her party, “but they can talk about women in a manner that is respectful and recognizes that the 1950s are gone and that women don’t want them back.” The nostalgia is misplaced, she says, describing the role of the woman then as wife waiting for her husband to come home so she can hand him his martini.
It’s easy to forget in the aftermath of this election that Obama went through a rough patch with women voters in ’08 when he challenged Hillary Clinton in the primaries, short-circuiting her route to the White House as the first woman president. Women were disappointed and angry with Obama, but that was a long time ago, and he more than made up for it by appointing Clinton secretary of State.
Romney had a much greater numbers and attitudes challenge than the relative handful of disaffected Clinton voters posed for Obama. “There is an element of the Republican Party that is significantly out of the mainstream,” says the GOP strategist, “and they’re loud, and whether they’re talking about abortion or building a wall on our southern border, they don’t sound like someone you want running the country.”
Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana were ridiculed for views that would define “legitimate rape” and ban abortion in the case of rape because pregnancy is God’s will. Romney disagreed with the remarks of both contenders and said he supports exceptions that would allow abortion. But his running mate Paul Ryan’s views line up squarely with Akin and Mourdock, who until they lost their races Tuesday were House members in good standing.
Melissa Weiss, 25, says her mother, a lifelong Republican, voted for Obama because she was turned off by the party’s attitude toward women. “I can’t get past the Republican stance on women’s issues—even the fact that they’re called ‘women’s issues’ is obnoxious. I just hope Obama understands this is not a vote for him, but against the GOP,” she says.
Is it just the tone Republicans got wrong in talking to women, or are there changes they need to make in the way they approach policy? “You need some of both,” says the Republican strategist. “You can’t just talk the talk.” Republicans have lost four of the last six presidential elections, five if you count losing the popular vote in 2000, so there should be plenty of soul searching. When Obama delivers his State of the Union address in February, the contrast will be visible with Republicans, still a dominantly white and male party, seated on one side of the House chamber; and on the other, a Democratic caucus nearing a majority of minorities and women. It’s politics past and future.