Withdrawing from war on women

Posted: April 18, 2012

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is obsessed with the women’s vote. The day after Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, Romney’s campaign issued five press releases in three hours claiming President Obama’s economic record has failed women, four of them highlighting remarks by female Republican politicians.

It might be a good strategy if the women’s vote existed.

Romney and the Republican National Committee argue that Obama’s energy policy is making women pay higher gas prices; that his economic policy is disproportionately costing them jobs; that the Obama White House pays female aides less than male ones.

Republicans are responding to weeks of Democratic charges that they’re waging a “war on women.” A recent poll that found Romney losing support among women under 50 in swing states has especially alarmed them.

But the number of voters who will vote for a Republican out of deep concern about the treatment of Democratic women in the White House has to be, as a rough approximation, zero. Ditto for the number concerned not about the high gas prices they are paying, but those that women as a group are.

The evidence that Romney is lagging in the polls because voters are upset about a “war on women” — rather than because of a bruising primary campaign or the recovering economy — is pretty thin. But Republicans are responding to the persistent mythology of the gender gap.

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post recently wrote that “the GOP has suffered from a gender gap in every presidential election since 1980.” Suffered? Of the eight presidential elections since 1980, Republicans won five. They carried women, albeit narrowly, three times; Democrats carried men twice. Republicans can lose while winning men; Democrats can lose while winning women.

The evidence suggests women are more inclined to vote for Democrats, but this doesn’t consistently help either party. It isn’t the case that the larger the gender gap, the worse Republicans do. Republicans did seven points better among men than among women in 2004, when they won. They did five points better in 2008, when they lost.

Obama barely won men in 2008. If this race is at all competitive, he will lose them this time. And Romney will win among large subgroups of women: married women, white women, women who go to church regularly. Gender isn’t the principal determinant of women’s votes any more than of men’s.

Of course Romney should use female campaign surrogates and highlight women as well as men who own small businesses.

But his support among men and women alike is what needs boosting. It’s a mistake to think he has a special problem with women, or that he can solve it by making a gender-specific appeal.

Republicans deserve credit for resisting the lazy idea that female voters care most about “women’s issues.” They should also resist the notion that women have to be courted on the basis of their sex.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.

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