The gender gap has returned to presidential politics with a vengeance as the general election begins to take shape and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney finds his campaign struggling with the pivotal bloc of women voters.
The Romney campaign is waging an aggressive counter-offensive in response to weeks of Democratic assertions that the former Massachusetts governor and the Republican Party are waging a “war on women.”
“They're working desperately to change the subject, and that's why they've created this whole 'war on women' campaign,” Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top-ranking Republican woman in the House, on a conference call organized by the Romney campaign. “There's no war on women by Republicans. What's really going on is a ‘war on reality’ by Democrats.”
Republicans are now working to re-frame issues of importance to women after eager messaging efforts by Democrats to advance the “war on women” narrative, which has contributed to a Republican disadvantage with female voters in 2012. It's a deficit aided by a hard-charging fight over access to contraception led by some Republicans earlier this year.
When Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus asserted in an interview last week that the media would just as quickly report a “war on caterpillars” if Democrats insisted it were the case, the Democratic National Committee pounced, and hyper-actively accused Priebus of trivializing women’s rights by drawing such a comparison.
First Thoughts: Romney struggles to close gender gap, but catches break
That Democratic argument reached a fever pitch on Wednesday when a Romney surrogate, speaking on a conference call, hesitated to say whether Romney supported a law making it easier for women to file lawsuits challenging pay disparities.
A spokesperson for Romney said later in the day that the former governor wouldn't do anything to change current law, but Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chairwoman, nonetheless called the Romney campaign's momentary failure to provide an answer "utterly shocking."
Now with the primary campaign mostly behind him, Romney has begun working to address the issue on the trail. His rhetoric at a pair of campaign stops – at each of which there were plenty of women sharing the stage – on Wednesday marked a preliminary effort by the Romney campaign to push back against the Democratic storyline.
“The real war upon women has been waged by his economic policies,” Romney said Wednesday in Connecticut. “Let’s hammer day in and day out what has happened under his policies, and recognize those policies, those things he believes, do not work.”
But the Romney campaign’s struggles in their attempts to reach women voters were on equal display as the candidate and his campaign repeated a dubious statistic about women accounting for nine of 10 jobs lost during Obama’s time in office.
It wasn’t until a consultant outside of the Obama campaign suggested that the GOP candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, had “never worked a day in her life” that the Romney campaign was able to stanch Democratic momentum.
That gaffe, at least temporarily, gave Republicans an opening.
The Romney campaign quickly organized a conference call and Ann Romney hit the airwaves for an interview to combat the charges. (Senior Obama officials also quickly disavowed the comments by consultant Hilary Rosen).
But the back-and-forth bickering obscured a larger battle Romney must fight to make up ground with women. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found Romney trailing Obama by 19 percent among registered women voters. (By contrast, Romney leads by eight percent among registered male voters.)
“It should definitely be a concern,” said Dan Judy, a Republican pollster for North Star Opinion Research. “I don't think they need to hit the panic button at this point, but that's something that you're going to see them work hard on.”
Romney’s strategy to address his deficit among women has been virtually indistinguishable from his work to court other demographics – like Latinos – or, for that matter, the general electorate as a whole. That is, Romney argues that improving the overall economy is just as paramount to women as anybody else and that the president’s record has fallen far short on that score.
Republicans argue that the former Massachusetts governor’s struggles are partly attributable to collateral damage from a divisive Republican primary season and a persistent focus in Congress and on the state level about access to contraception.
A prime example came in Virginia, where Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell had to back off supporting a controversial proposal to require women to undergo an invasive ultrasound procedure before terminating a pregnancy. And Rick Santorum, who suspended his presidential campaign this week, spent weeks answering questions about his personal opposition to birth control.
Romney is likely to make up some of that ground just by virtue of campaigning in a general election environment. ("People haven't had a chance to listen to us or hear us," his wife said in an interview on FOX News.)
But the million-dollar question involves whether much of that collateral damage will linger with Romney, and how he might go about addressing his gender gap.
“They need to drive the conversation away from women’s bodies to the economy," said Sabrina Schaeffer, the executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, adding Romney should "come up with some tangible examples of how they can help women on things like employment, health care, education and other issues.”
Schaeffer argued that Romney might package together squarely conservative proposals on entitlements, education and health care in a way that’s appealing to women. She also warned the campaign against being caught flat-footed on issues like the fair pay law a surrogate had declined to speak about on Wednesday.
“They need to think carefully about how to respond to issues like Lilly Ledbetter,” she said.
Cheri Jacobus, the founder of Capitol Strategies, a Republican consulting firm, also encouraged the Romney campaign to employ more women surrogates.
“I think that it’s always helpful to have effective surrogates from all walks of life,” she said.
For their part, Democrats argue that Romney’s deficit with women is about far more than messaging.
“When it comes to connecting with women, it’s not just an optics problem – it’s a substance problem,” said Jess McIntosh, the deputy communications director for the Democratic women’s group, EMILY’s List. “Even if Romney could put a really great spin on his anti-woman regressive policies, they would still be anti-woman regressive policies. And despite what the GOP may think, women notice that.”
But for Romney, making inroads with women might also depend on the kind of women he targets.
The Republican pollster, Judy, suggested that young, unmarried women might be a taller order for Romney to win than, say, suburban, middle-aged mothers. These voters are the ones the Romney campaign is targeting when it rolls out Ann Romney, one of its most effective surrogates for the campaign due to her biography as a mother of five who’s suffered from breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Republican thinking suggests that if Romney steers clear of hot-button social issues like contraception and keeps his focus on the economy, he could be more competitive with Obama in winning the female vote.
“Women voters, especially the more independent-minded female voters in the swing states are critical to either party if they want to win,” Judy said. “Mitt Romney has an opportunity to get some of those women back."