National Politics|By Amy Walter, August 9, 2013
National Republicans have launched the latest salvo in the gender gap wars. Using the Anthony Weiner/Bob Filner scandals as ammunition, Republican groups have been carpet-bombing my email box daily.
”Will Hillary Clinton speak out against Mayor Filner and stand up for the women he has victimized?” demanded the GOP SuperPAC America Rising.
“RE: Democrats War on Women” read a recent memo penned by the communications directors of the five GOP campaign committees.
Chiding Democrats for nationalizing Todd Akin in 2012 while downplaying their own boorish members in 2013, the GOP is eager to expose national Democrats as hypocrites who, “only pretend to care about women when it’s politically advantageous.”
Republicans focused on 2016 are also happy to have any opportunity to try and take the shine off Hillary Clinton, tying her as closely as possible to the embarrassing mess in New York City.
But, Democratic sexting/harassing scandals aren’t going to bring women voters back to the GOP.
Republicans have to decide if they would rather win the “war on women” or win women voters.
Republicans didn’t lose the women’s vote in 2012 because of Todd Akin. Many on the right believe that the “lamestream” media helped to drive a wedge between the GOP and female voters by spending an inordinate time on outrageous statements made by GOP candidates like Akin and Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock. In reality, however, the lack of attention to the issues that motivate and engage women voters is what ultimately cost the GOP female votes.
Back in the 2012 campaign, I spent a lot of time in focus groups with swing female voters. These women were much more concerned with how to put food on the table or afford to take their kids to the doctor than they were about “legitimate rape” or “binders full of women.”
Alex Bratty of the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies and Margie Omero of the Democratic firm Momentum Strategies conducted numerous focus groups over the 2012 cycle of so-called “Walmart Moms”- defined as a female voter with at least one child under 18 at home and who shops at Walmart at least once a month. These women were disillusioned with both sides, convinced that no one in Washington appreciated the very real struggles they had just to make it day-to-day.
“Walmart Moms are frustrated with the state of the country, but they are skeptical about Washington’s ability to address the key issues that will have a positive, tangible impact on their household,” wrote Bratty and Omero in an April 2012 memo “ These moms do not feel well represented. They see their elected officials and candidates running for office – whether for President or Member of Congress – as being elitist, out‐of‐touch and often focused on the wrong issues: arguing about social issues when they should be discussing ways to improve the economy, reduce gas prices and get the country back on track.”
In a post-election survey, the Walmart moms cited the economy, health care, education and jobs as the critical issues that mattered to them on Election Day. A very small percentage cited social issues, but they were essentially a wash (7 percent said pro-life was a top issue while 6 percent said pro-choice was their main concern).
As we fast-forward to 2014, Republicans are still struggling with their ability to project empathy and an “I’m on your side” appeal to women.
“There's no question that Filner and Weiner are creeps, and it's one thing to give Democrats a taste of their own medicine right now, because they've certainly presented our side with an opportunity,” said one GOP strategist heavily involved in the 2014 mid-terms. “But the economy is where the rubber meets the road, and the bigger opportunity for Republicans heading into 2014 is to make this election a serious discussion about what, specifically, we'll do to make life better for the millions of families who are right now struggling to keep up. That means caring about jobs, stagnant wages, the rising costs of things like food, gas, health care and child care, and the demand for affordable higher education. To win, Republicans need to deal seriously and empathetically with the challenges families face every day.”
Democrats have similar concerns about keeping women engaged in 2014. And, it’s economic issues, not social ones, they see as critical in bringing them out to vote next year. A memo written by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund argues that “Unmarried women, a key voting bloc for Democrats, are not as engaged as the general population and are less likely to report that they intend to vote in 2014. As we learned in March, these women do not believe Washington is addressing the issues most important to them.” The way to reverse that, argues Greenberg, is for the Democratic party to promote an economic agenda for women that emphasizes “raising pay and incomes for working women and families. Encompassed within raising incomes for women and families are some key policies that would improve the pocketbook economies for these women – including childcare and opportunities to start and maintain women-owned small businesses.”
At the end of the day, Republicans ability to shrink the gender gap has less to do with trying to convince women to abandon Democrats than it does to convince women to vote for them. Voters know that bad behavior isn’t linked to just one party. And, they aren’t all that much interested in seeing more finger-pointing by preening politicians about which side is guiltiest of pointing fingers. To win women voters, both political parties have to meet these women where they are: skeptical and frustrated and worried about falling further behind. They want politicians who are less interested in winning a “war” and more interested in fighting for them.