The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’ – Sigmund Freud
Though the mystery of feminine wants has stumped poets, philosophers, and the father of psychoanalysis, today’s Democratic politicians think they’ve found the key — at least to the political desires of most women: a single-minded focus on the gynecological.
Republicans, whipsawed by the results of 2012 races that featured large gender gaps, particularly among single women, and aware that women have trended Democrat for decades, seem bewildered. A Karl Rove-commissioned study found that women voters consider the Republican Party “intolerant” and “lacking in compassion.” Consultants, gnawing nervously on polling and demographic data, implore Republican candidates to emphasize economic questions and soft-pedal the social issues. The candidates themselves, uncomfortable with the whole subject and wondering why they can’t just discuss the capital gains tax, mumble about how much they love their wives and eye the exits.
Democrats are running against monsters. They are running to protect American women from the hostile, patriarchal, domineering men of the Republican Party. (Chivalry is not dead!) In the Democrats’ ghoulish caricature, Republicans are not just wrong on the issues that women care about, but are barely above criminals. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, used rhetoric only slightly more florid than the Democratic norm when she said of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, “What Republican Tea Party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back.”
Republicans who think they can avoid women’s issues, or blunt their power by talk of entrepreneurship or free markets, are rewarding the Democrats’ tactics. Silence gives consent. Moreover, they are conveying their fear that the Democrats’ interpretation of women’s wants is correct. They may even believe it more sincerely than Democrats themselves.
Democrats claim to believe that most women want what liberal Democrats want — taxpayer-funded abortion for any reason, free contraceptives, and so forth. “Issues like access to birth control and abortion will get voters to the polls this November,” predicted Dawn Laguens of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. But Democratic campaign commercials reveal something else: They dare not present Republican positions accurately. The “Republicans want to outlaw abortion and contraception” lie has arguably replaced the “Republicans want to take away your Medicare” as the chief scare tactic in the dishonest Democratic arsenal.
A number of Democrats are running ads this month claiming that Republicans seek to “ban all abortions even in cases of rape and incest.” Democrat John Foust in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District is airing a commercial that features a sweater-clad, thirtysomething woman telling the camera that Republican Barbara Comstock opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. “That’s all I need to know,” the appalled sweater lady announces as she turns to leave. In fact, Comstock, who is pro-life, is on record supporting exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
FactCheck.org, noting that similar false claims were made about Mitt Romney in 2012, sums up the tactic: “In race after race, Democratic ads are misrepresenting, distorting and exaggerating their Republican opponents’ position on abortion to make them seem more strict (and therefore less popular) than they really are.”
Meanwhile, two Democratic Senate campaigns — Sen. Mark Udall’s in Colorado and Rep. Bruce Braley’s in Iowa — are peddling howling distortions of their opponents’ views on contraception. Udall’s ads accuse Rep. Cory Gardner of conducting an “8-year crusade to outlaw birth control.” In Iowa, Rep. Bruce Braley is running spots suggesting that Republican Joni Ernst would “outlaw most common forms of birth control.” Other campaigns are following the same script.
In truth, no Republican candidate favors outlawing or even limiting the availability of birth control. The Democrats’ case goes like this: Some Republicans have supported so-called “personhood” amendments — most did so to confirm their pro-life beliefs — and if you stretch the concept in a particular direction, and you presume certain implementing legislation, and you posit that the law would survive a court challenge, then such initiatives could possibly result in some forms of birth control such as the IUD (but not the pill, which is frequently flashed on screen during political ads) being considered abortifacients and outlawed. But as FactCheck.org and others agree, this interpretation requires more assumptions and speculation than can withstand reasonable scrutiny, and it flies in the face of explicit statements to the contrary by Republican candidates.
Democrats lie about their opponents’ views on abortion because only by presenting Republicans as extremists can the issue work for them. Polling varies on abortion, depending upon how questions are worded. But broad majorities of both men and women favor limits on abortion, even as most also approve exceptions in cases of rape and incest. A 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that more women (60 percent) than men favor legal limitations on abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation. The 2003 ban on partial-birth abortion was broadly popular.
There are only two ways abortion can help Democratic candidates: when the focus is on extreme cases where rape or incest are involved, or when abortion and birth control are conflated. Democrats have been diligently doing both. “Women,” National Journal predicts, “are the Democrats’ last best hope to salvage the Senate.”
There is no question that women, particularly single women, have favored Democrats for several decades. Since 1980, women have also comprised an ever-larger share of the electorate, reaching 53 percent of voters in 2012.
If Americans were marrying at the same rate as they did in the past, this increase in the percentage of women voters wouldn’t help Democrats, because married women tend to vote Republican. Fifty-three percent of married women voted for Mitt Romney, for example, and 51 percent supported Ken Cuccinelli in the 2013 Virginia governor’s race. But marriage is declining. Whereas 65 percent of American adults were married in 1980, just 51 percent of adults were married in 2012. Among the 20- to 34-year-old cohort, 57 percent never married.
Though you wouldn’t guess it by the ladies who write for the New York Times or “The Daily Show,” white women also lean Republican. But their share of the electorate is declining too, at least in presidential years. Mitt Romney got a healthy 56 percent of the white female vote, but white women’s share of the electorate was only 38 percent, down from 41 percent in 2004.
Single gals are drawn to Democrats as the sparks fly upward. A whopping 67 percent voted for President Obama in 2012. In the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli contest for Virginia governor last year, the Democrat trounced the Republican by 42 points among unmarried women. This disproportion in the votes of single women, evident nationwide, is enough to place the overall women’s vote in the Democratic column most of the time. Nominating women doesn’t seem to matter much. South Carolina’s Gov. Nikki Haley, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Carly Fiorina all received only a minority of women’s votes.
The gender gap has been a feature of American politics for decades. Men lean Republican, but—this is key — usually by smaller margins than single women lean Democrat.
Gender gaps are not unique to the United States, proving that they are not all about abortion and IUDs. They show up in other nations where “social issues” are not contested. Gender gaps in favor of the more leftist party have been noted since the 1990s in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Greece, Denmark, France, Ireland, Sweden and others.
Many U.S. surveys confirm that women hold more left-liberal views than men. This too has been true for decades. In 1995, Gallup found that women leaned more to the left than men on the role of government, the use of military force, and other matters. In 2012, little had changed. A CBS/New York Times poll asked respondents whether the United States is more successful when government emphasizes “self-reliance and individual responsibility” or “community and shared responsibility.” Among women, 37 percent chose self-reliance compared with 46 percent of men, while 55 percent of women chose community. Asked which was a bigger problem, “unfairness in the economic system favoring the wealthy” or “overregulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity,” 54 percent of women but only 42 percent of men named unfairness. The Democratic Party also claims more women registrants (52 percent, versus 43 percent of men).
As the American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman has noted, women are consistently more risk-averse than men. They are more skeptical of military force, for example, and more likely to express nervousness about nuclear power. Women express more anxiety about terrorism and about health scares such as Ebola. Guns make them uncomfortable, and they dislike “stand your ground” laws. Financial planners find that men are more open to risky investments than women, who prefer safety. Bowman notes that when pollsters ask fanciful questions, such as whether one would accept the offer of a ride in a spacecraft, “the gender gap becomes a chasm.”
Risk aversion may be the key to understanding women’s votes. It would explain single women’s support of the Democratic Party, with its “Life of Julia” promises of government support. Married women, with husbands to rely on, are less drawn to Big Brother. The crude shorthand that single women are looking to the government to be a husband is probably accurate to a point.
Risk aversion also explains women’s consistent preference for incumbents and avoidance of leaps into the unknown. In last month’s Scottish independence referendum, more women than men voted “No,” with the plurality explaining that the risks of becoming an independent nation were too great.
Risk aversion is not a character flaw. It is built into women’s natures, because we bear and nurture children. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are exhausting and potentially debilitating enterprises. They are not the stuff of rugged individualists. Women need support and protection, as do their children. But, sadly for them and for our country, the extended family went out of style generations ago and single parenthood has become commonplace.
One-quarter of all households with children are headed by single mothers. (A tiny percentage of single-parent households is headed by men.) Most such families struggle. Sixty percent of the children in single-mother families live in poverty. Though they and their children would in nearly every case be better off if marriage remained the norm (married mothers have household incomes four times those of singles, to say nothing of psychic and other advantages), these women are, for obvious reasons, sensitive to their own vulnerability. Many are one job loss or one illness (their own or their children’s) away from disaster.
The task for Republicans, as I suggested at their last congressional retreat in January, is to understand the vulnerability of these women and address it in ways that will free them from the poverty trap rather than consign them to lifelong dependency and narrow horizons.
Since 2012, gallons of ink have been spilled over cloddish remarks by a couple of Republican candidates about “legitimate rape” and abortion. Doubtless, those comments, and the free advertising afforded about them by the media, boosted the “war on women” theme Democrats devised to avoid discussing the economy or jobs. But Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin didn’t by themselves hand the single women’s vote to Obama. They were assisted by the Republican Party’s institutional failure to rebut the rest of the lies and distortions about a “war on women.”
Perhaps falling for the fiction that Democrats have a special claim on women’s issues, Republicans have been slow to respond. They mostly looked down and kicked the dirt as Democrats portrayed them as opposing “equal pay for equal work,” seeking to “outlaw” birth control, holding inflexible views on abortion, and even opposing efforts to combat domestic violence. Each of these charges is so outlandish that the beginning of any answer ought to be a snort. But only the beginning.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia was a protracted distortion about “women’s issues.” Cuccinelli, a firm social conservative to be sure, favored abortion only to save the mother’s life, and introduced legislation to make divorce more difficult to obtain when children were involved. McAuliffe transformed his opponent into a woman-hating fiend. Cuccinelli was falsely portrayed as favoring legislation that would have made it harder for women, but not men, to file for divorce. He was accused of wanting to outlaw birth control. He was painted as opposing all abortions for any reason.
Cuccinelli was limp in response. He used his precious television advertising — he was outspent 2 to 1 — to feature soft-focus ads highlighting his work as attorney general to combat sexual assaults and prosecute child predators. Those themes might have been effective after a stern denial of the other charges. As it was, women were invited to conclude that McAuliffe’s charges were true and that Cuccinelli was changing the subject.
This year the same circus is back in town. Democrats hope to gin up outrage on the part of single women voters to lure them to the polls. (Singles tend to vote in smaller numbers in off-year elections.) Thus Democrats hope to choose the voters rather than letting voters choose the candidates.
In Colorado, Senate candidate Rep. Cory Gardner stands accused of an “8-year crusade to outlaw birth control.” Gardner has responded with a commercial in which he touts his support for over-the-counter sale of contraceptive pills, which is probably effective. A Crossroads GPS ad aired on Gardner’s behalf is arguably harmful. It features a small group of women declaring “we’re not single-issue voters” — practically conceding that the false attacks on Gardner are accurate.
In addition to Gardner, a number of candidates, including Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Ed Gillespie in Virginia, have sought to defuse the false accusation that they seek to outlaw contraceptives by endorsing over-the-counter sale of birth control pills. This stratagem, originated by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, appears to have stanched the bleeding in Gardner’s case. It should be the just the starting point of Republican rebuttal.
Equal pay for equal work, for example, has been the law since 1963. No Republican opposes it. They should heap scorn on the accusation and then emphasize Republican support for flex-time laws and job sharing, measures that are particularly helpful to and popular among women. Republicans have even gotten some chuckles pointing out that using the bogus measures Democrats always employ about the economy — simply adding up salaries and then comparing men with women without regard to time on the job, skill level, or any other factor — the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are paying women less than men.
The outcome of the Cuccinelli race, along with others, suggests that single women voters, while not single-issue zealots, will vote against perceived extremism. If portrayed accurately, women’s issues don’t rank very high on women’s lists of priorities. Polling shows that women rate abortion as important to their vote, but not the most important factor.
Offered a list of issues to rank in importance by Pew in September 2012, abortion was named less often than healthcare, education, jobs, Medicare, the economy, terrorism, taxes, foreign policy, and the budget deficit. A postelection Kaiser poll found only 7 percent of those who voted for President Obama cited women’s issues as most important to their vote. When Pew asked the question two years later, abortion again lagged behind the economy, economic inequality, terrorism, foreign policy, the federal budget deficit, immigration, and the environment. The only issues cited less frequently than abortion were birth control and gay marriage.
The gender gap is durable but it isn’t written in stone. Obama’s winning margin among women shrank by 2 points between 2008 and 2012. Women’s preference for Democrats is often larger than men’s for Republicans, but not always. Women gave John Kerry an edge in 2004 over George W. Bush, but only by 3 points, while men gave Bush an 11-point advantage. In 2010, Republican congressional candidates received slightly more female votes than Democrats. In deep blue New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie received 57 percent of the women’s vote in 2013, up 12 points from his 2009 showing. Christie is pro-life, maintaining his stance against late-term abortions and in favor of parental notification and 24-hour waiting periods. He also faced a female Democratic opponent.
The Democrats’ below-the-waist pitch to women is a crass tactic that Republicans should not emulate. At the same time, they must be aware that the Republican Party’s reputation among all voters needs burnishing. The image of the party as favoring the rich is as ingrained as it is damaging.
Reforms that would ease the lot of single mothers (along with other parents) such as the tax reform plan offered by Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida have the virtue of being both just and popular among middle-income voters and women. The Lee-Rubio plan would increase the exemption for each child and make it refundable against both income and payroll taxes. Appeals to cut corporate taxes, arguably necessary for economic growth, will go down more easily if paired with relief for parents.
Women are also sensitive to the costs of higher education, healthcare, and energy. In all three of those areas, Republicans can make a creditable case that Democratic policies have increased prices and imposed hardships on middle-income Americans. (Who owns higher education if not the Democrats?)
After six years of stagnating wages, sluggish growth, and government incompetence, voters may be more primed to hear a Republican case that the Democrats have succeeded only in producing more dependency. Voters of both sexes always prefer good jobs. Republicans who insult voters by suggesting that they want handouts are asking for rebuke. A “We can do better” message probably has more potential with undecideds than contempt for the “47 percent.”
Many single women with young children would not be so vulnerable if they had made different choices. But it isn’t the role of politicians to scold or exhort. Republicans should make an honest case for how people’s lives will improve – lower healthcare costs, more abundant energy, better jobs, stronger national defense — if they pull the lever for Republicans. Republicans should speak to and for the wage earner, not the entrepreneur. Yes, entrepreneurs create jobs and are the engine of economic growth. But Republicans have praised them quite enough. Few women, and few people generally, see themselves as potential business creators. They are instead looking for good jobs with good wages. Republican paeans to entrepreneurs run the risk of convincing voters that the GOP is looking out for business owners rather than wage earners. Every proposed reform ought to be framed for its effect on average people.
Throughout the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli race, with its raw pandering to single women, polls showed McAuliffe ahead by double digits. On Election Day, McAuliffe won by only 3 points. What happened in the last few days of the race? The clownish rollout of healthcare.gov. Faced with a real issue rather than phantoms that McAuliffe had been conjuring, many voters switched.
The electorate, as the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen observes, is like a three-dimensional chessboard. Single women tend to support Democrats, but you can slice it another way and say single women tend to be black and Hispanic. The Democrats’ playbook is to Balkanize voters and appeal to each constituency separately, often with scare tactics. This leaves the field open to Republicans to rip away the fright mask and craft a message that appeals across categories. They needn’t win a majority of resistant groups to win elections; losing single women, blacks, or Hispanics by smaller margins would do the trick. So would drawing more men or married voters to the polls.
Republicans should not fear women voters. They are not an army of Sandra Fluke shock troops. They are repelled by perceived extremism, and they are interested in whether a candidate can improve daily life. If Republicans don’t believe their ideas are better for women as well as for men, and if they lack the confidence to make their case forcefully, especially when they are caricatured and slandered, they should find another line of work.
Mona Charen is a columnist with Creators Syndicate and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.