Sunday, February 3, 2013

The GOP needs to learn how to talk to girls

My friend Sabrina Schaeffer, who’s the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, was just interviewed for Glamour magazine’s website, all about women and conservatism. This is always one of those topics that really grabs my attention—not only do I belong to both the “woman” and “conservative” categories, women’s voting behavior is something that I’ve spent a lot of time researching of late.

It’s no secret that the GOP has been nothing short of abysmal in reaching out to women recently.  There are the obvious things: Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, and Richard Mourdock’s controversial rape comments.  But there’s a deeper problem than just embarrassingly bad remarks. Much like an awkward 13-year-old with no moves, the GOP just doesn’t seem to know how to talk to girls.

My apologies if you’ve heard me tell this story already, but I came across a piece on Buzzfeed a few months before the 2012 election that really summed up the Republican “woman problem.” The article looked at the online stores for the Obama and Romney campaigns—more specifically, the women’s sections of the respective stores. Obama’s store offered three pages worth of merchandise for women, from Obama t-shirts to “Our Health, Our Vote” tote bags.  Romney’s store offered exactly three items for women: an Ann Romney button, and two bumper stickers—one proclaiming “Moms Drive the Economy” and the other “I’m a Mom for Mitt.”

Welp, I’m not a mom AND I’m car-less, so that knocks out two-thirds of the items for me.  And, to tell you the truth, walking around wearing a large Ann Romney button doesn’t really do it for me. So pretty much, for a young, single gal with (I like to think) a semblance of fashion sense, the Romney campaign really didn’t offer any women’s items worth considering.

In a way, I can see where Republicans are coming from—after all, the gender gap may be large (8 points), but the marriage gap is even bigger (21 points).  However, I don’t believe that the GOP should be waving the surrender flag when it comes to winning the votes of other women.  Many voters of both genders did not come of age in a time when a single political philosophy dominated, and so they were less likely to forge a lifelong devotion to one or the other party.  Their voting habits are more subject to fluctuation.

Back to Glamour: there are two things in Schaeffer’s interview to which I want to draw particular attention.  First, how should the GOP talk about the big elephants in the room (no pun intended) having to do with women—abortion and contraception. Honestly, these are really tough topics for the GOP, ones that highlight a fissure in the party that has to do with the very role of government.  While many Republicans oppose abortion (either entirely or in most cases), those who lean more to the libertarian side of things question whether the government should be involved with such private decisions.

For contraception, it’s more about who pays for it. This should be somewhat easier for conservatives and Republicans to argue: if the government should be kept out of the bedroom, then government should not pay for birth control. But instead, some have used name-calling, which only serves to undermine what could be a strong argument.

Schaeffer (correctly, I think) points out that “both parties are so focused on talking to women about so-called ‘women’s issues’ that they forget about the real issues facing women.” As a female, I find it more than a little bit demeaning that the parties think that all my “demographic” seems to care about is issues affecting our bodies.   Schaeffer says that just like men, women are thinking about the economy and jobs.  To say that women are concerned mainly with the politics of “lady parts” is not only insulting, it’s just plain incorrect.

And guess what? The stats back us up.  Take a look at this October 2012 Gallup poll.  About 4 in 10 of female registered voters believed that abortion was “the most important issue for women” in the 2012 election.  But when these same female voters were asked about which issues were most important in influencing their vote for president, “government policies concerning birth control” lagged behind unemployment, internal issues, healthcare, and the federal budget deficit and national debt.  Now, to be sure, 6 in 10 female voters said that the candidates’ respective positions on birth control were either “extremely important” or “very important” in influencing their vote, but that’s compared to 9 out of 10 female voters for the other issues I just listed.  In short, female voters seem to think that women care more about abortion and birth control as election issues than they actually do.

That takes me to the second point. I think Schaeffer is dead-on in her prescription for the GOP: “I think that Republicans don’t simply need to tweak their message, they need to really rethink the way they’re talking about everything.” Women’s lives have significantly changed since the days of June Cleaver, but the GOP doesn’t seem to realize that we’re not living in a Leave It to Beaver world anymore.  The percentage of unmarried women with kids is growing, especially among white women under the age of 30 with some college.  While the conservative ideal may be a stable, two-parent household, that’s just not the case for millions of women.  The GOP must learn to communicate with this growing audience—or it can write off their votes for good.

Phew, time to take a breath!  I’ll return to the topic soon.  Until then, please take the time to read the full Glamour interview—it’s really good stuff.

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