Republicans try to bridge gender gap

Posted: August 29, 2012

TAMPA - It is no secret to Republican leaders and the Mitt Romney high command: They have a political problem with women.

In poll after poll, President Obama outperforms Romney among women voters by wide margins that may have been increased by recent controversies about contraception and abortion, and comments by Republican Senate candidates that many deemed insensitive.

Into the breach Tuesday night strode Ann Romney, with an address to the Republican National Convention here and a television audience of millions. One part of her mission was to humanize her husband, a private-equity specialist who often seems stiff on the trail. The other, perhaps just as vital, was to sing an ode to the women of America.

"If you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men," she said. "It's how it is, isn't it? It's the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right. It's the moms of this nation, single, married, widowed, who really hold the country together. We're the mothers. We're the wives. We're the grandmothers. We're the big sisters. We're the little sisters and we are the daughters."

Even New Jersey's pugnacious Gov. Christie devoted a good chunk of his keynote address to praise for his late mother. And women have been featured prominently Tuesday and Wednesday at the convention: New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among them, along with female small-business owners and actress Janine Turner.

The gender gap between the major parties is not new. For the last three decades, Republicans have usually trailed with women voters in national elections, because, analysts say, women have traditionally been more concerned with the social safety net and education spending, issues pushed by Democrats, and because of the GOP's emphasis on restricting abortion rights and opposition to equal-pay laws in the workplace.

And the gap is of acute importance this year, with the presidential race neck and neck in poll after poll. Strategists on both sides know that in 2010, the GOP regained control of the House in large part because its candidates ran evenly with Democrats among women.

Analysts say that Obama would not be in the White House today if he had not beaten Republican John McCain by 13 points among female voters, 56 percent to 43 percent, according to the national exit poll in 2008.

A new CNN/Time poll released Monday found that respondents chose Obama over Romney, 60 percent to 31 percent, on the question of which candidate is "more in touch with the problems of women today." And 58 percent of likely female voters said Obama "cares about the needs of people like you," compared with 36 percent who chose Romney, the poll said.

Last week's Inquirer Pennsylvania Poll of likely voters found Obama leading among women by 55 percent to 39 percent, while the president and Romney were within the margin of error, with the president holding a nominal lead of 47 percent to 46 percent, among men. Results were based on interviews with 601 likely voters between Aug. 21 and 23, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Yet the electorate is a dynamic thing, and movement in one demographic group can often be offset by movement in another. For all the talk of a Republican gender gap, Obama has gaps of his own. For instance: Across the nation, he is running poorly among whites without college educations, which is how pollsters define the blue-collar or working-class group. In 2008, he got 42 percent of these voters.

"He's way under that now, down in the low to mid-30s," Republican pollster Whit Ayers said Tuesday during a National Journal forum.

"That has nothing to do with somehow the nation becoming more racist over the last 3½ years," Ayers said. "It has everything to do with the fact that the president has governed as an inveterate liberal. . . . He has shown in many ways that he believes blue-collar whites are bitter people who 'cling to their guns and religion.' He has sent these signals that he doesn't have a particular affinity for their outlook, their values, their approach to the world."

This could give Romney an advantage in electorally significant places such as southeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, Ayers said. Together, the two states have 38 electoral votes.

There also are nuances to the gender gap. Republicans tend to do worst with unmarried women - a group that is a "growth market," said pollster Kellyanne Conway. But, she said, "not all unmarried women are 20, on a college campus, screaming about abortion and the environment." She says the GOP has a chance to reach older single women, whether mothers or childless, because they make the financial decisions in their households and are receptive to an "ownership society" message.

Ann Romney's widely acclaimed speech did not sway Hillary Murdoch of Pottstown, a registered independent who participated in the Inquirer poll. She said she watched some of the GOP convention Tuesday night but found nothing to change her mind about voting for Obama.

Issues that are near and dear to Murdoch: women's rights, the environment, health care, education. And she can't reconcile her views on abortion - "I believe in choice," she said - with those of a GOP that this week approved a platform that calls for banning abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest. (Romney, though, has said he favors those exceptions.)

She said that while she thought Ann Romney's speech was good, she felt it was geared toward mothers rather than women like her, who are married but chose not to have children.

"I identify with Michelle Obama better," said Murdoch, a training developer. "She's a career woman, and I understand that."

Kris Eng, a Republican delegate from State College, Pa., said the party should stress economic issues, which she said concern women the most. "The 'gender gap' is a Democrat talking point," said Eng, who has a yellow business card identifying her has a "Romney and Ryan Chick."

Eng said she never hears her friends obsessing over reproductive issues or the Republican platform plank on abortion.

"And I have liberal and conservative friends, but I haven't had a conversation about contraception with any of them, except maybe in college," Eng said. "I resent groups that don't represent me telling me what it means to be a woman."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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