Until the 2014 election, Democratic politicians thought they had discovered the key to women’s desires, at least to their political longings: a single-minded focus on the gynecological. As in past contests, Democrats conjured monsters to destroy. In the Democrats’ ghoulish caricature, Republicans were not just wrong on the issues that women care about, but were 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.”
In 2012, the tactic of portraying Republicans as a party at war with women was arguably effective. It worked, at least in part, because Republicans failed to respond. In 2014, they refused to play their assigned part.
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 revealed 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 ran ads in 2014 claiming that Republicans seek to “ban all abortions even in cases of rape and incest.” Democrat John Foust in Virginia’s 10th congressional district aired a commercial featuring a sweater-clad, thirty-something 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 announced as she turned to leave. In fact, Comstock, who is pro-life, was on record supporting exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Comstock won by 16 points.
FactCheck.org, noting that similar false claims were made about Mitt Romney in 2012, summed 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.”
Two senate campaigns, meanwhile, Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-CO) and Rep. Bruce Braley’s (D-IA), peddled howling distortions of their opponents’ views on contraception. Udall’s ads said that Rep. Cory Gardner conducted an “8-year crusade to outlaw birth control.” In Iowa, Braley ran spots suggesting that Joni Ernst would “outlaw most common forms of birth control.” Both lost by large margins. Udall suffered the further indignity of being nicknamed “Mark Uterus” for his over-reliance on birth control and abortion in advertising.
In truth, no Republican candidate favored outlawing or even limiting the availability of birth control. In 2014, unlike in 2012, they said so — volubly.
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 question wording. 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.
Women Lean Left
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 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 are never-marrieds. A whopping 67 percent of single women voted for President Obama in 2012. In the 2013 McAuliffe/Cuccinelli race for Virginia governor, 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.
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.
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. 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 U.S. 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).
Women are more Risk Averse
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, and more likely to express nervousness about nuclear power. Women express more anxiety about terrorism and 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. 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 is not a character flaw. It’s 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 a single mother. (A tiny percentage of single parent households are 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 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.
Republicans Must Fight Back
The task for Republicans 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. 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.
Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner, along with others, ran ads touting his support for over-the-counter sale of contraceptive pills. Other candidates used similar ads in other states. This stratagem, originated by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, appears to have blunted Democrats’ attacks. 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.
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 post-election 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 renewed the question in September 2014, 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. Exit polls found that abortion and birth control were low priorities for most voters.
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 gave John Kerry an edge in 2004 over George W. Bush, but only by three 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. In the 2014 midterms, women still preferred Democrats, but only by 4 points, while men preferred Republicans by 16 points.
The Democrats’ below the waist pitch to women is a crass tactic that arguably backfired. At the same time, Republicans must bear in mind that the electorate in presidential years is younger and more liberal than in off-years. 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.
Helping Women the Right Way
Reforms that would ease the lot of single mothers (along with other parents) such as the tax reform plan offered by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) 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, health care, 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?)
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 health care 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.
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 that single women tend to be Hispanic and black. 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, Hispanics, or blacks by smaller margins would do the trick. So would drawing more men or more 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 that 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 syndicated columnist with Creators Syndicate and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Washington Examiner.