At the end of March, the Pew Research Center released new poll numbers on the gender gap, which it says is "as wide as ever," with a "striking" advantage among female voters going to President Obama. The most recent national survey showed that for the second month in a row, Obama led Mitt Romney by a whopping 20 points among female voters. So now the narrative in Washington is that the Republican Party has a problem with women, thanks to the contraception fight.
It may be that there's a wide gender gap right now, but if things continue the way they are into the fall, that gap will close significantly. While there are still more women than men overall who identify themselves as Democrats or as Democratic-leaning independents, there are fewer now than there were in 2008. Republicans are closing the gap, and things are fluid. More women than men vote these days, and the biggest voting group in the electorate is independents. Contrary to the current polls, the women's vote is still very much up for grabs, especially among independents.
To say that female voters prefer Barack Obama because of the contraception fight isn't quite accurate. Pew calls the gender differences on the birth control coverage mandate "relatively modest," and women under 50 were far less likely than older women to have even heard about the controversy. Poll after poll shows that by wide margins, most women are far more concerned with the economy, jobs, and the national debt than they are with contraception. There's plenty of good research to back up what Mitt Romney has said: Win the economy, win women.
Here's why the gender gap will narrow if things stay the way they are: My sense is that the tone coming from the White House is really turning off women. When it became clear that the Democratic-led Senate wasn't going to put out a federal budget for the third year in a row, it was disgraceful. Later, a budget outline based on the White House numbers, continuing the deficit spending unabated, went down in flames in the House by a bipartisan vote of 414-0. Even the House Democrats couldn't stand by the president's proposals. So when the House Republicans put forward Rep. Paul Ryan's budget last month, cutting spending and reforming entitlements, the president chose not to find some middle ground and work together on a compromise, but instead started punching.
"It [the Ryan budget] is a Trojan Horse. Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country," the president told an Associated Press luncheon last week. "It is thinly veiled social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity ... it is a prescription for decline." You can agree or disagree with the Republican budget, but there's no arguing that at the very least it's a plan on the table. Calling the people on the other side of the aisle radicals who stand for everything antithetical to our entire history as a nation doesn't sound like the language of compromise to me. It's divisive and unnecessary.
Maybe insults and name-calling are a macho thing—watch this, guys, I'll stick it to 'em!—but I suspect most women are ready to get something done. (If the president felt the same way, he would have endorsed the Simpson-Bowles compromise a long time ago.) He seems oblivious to the consequences for the next generation, who face being saddled with massive college loans, higher taxes, and the prospect of an insolvent government. According to Pew, women are far more concerned than men with issues that affect the next generation, including protecting government programs for poor children and improving education. Women know that doing either of those will be impossible if our government is bankrupt and our entitlement programs are broke.
That same ugly tone came out when the president went after the Supreme Court in advance of its ruling on the individual mandate contained in his new healthcare law. There are two larger issues here. First, by sharply criticizing the Supreme Court again (the last time, he called them out on the Citizens United decision during his 2010 State of the Union address), the president is coming across as arrogant and oblivious to judicial review. Plus, his actions telegraph that if the mandate is overturned, he's really going to go ugly this fall. No one wants that, especially not women.
The second issue is that the White House keeps saying that it is not working on a Plan B if the mandate were to be struck down. Some have suggested that the president could pursue a state-by-state strategy this fall, or propose alternative legislation that focuses on cutting costs instead of mandating access, both of which would likely be agreeable to Republicans. But it's looking increasingly clear that the strategy instead will be to attack the court and energize the liberal base still upset about the Bush v. Gore and Citizens United decisions. Having no Plan B for reining in rising healthcare costs creates even more uncertainty for small businesses, healthcare providers, and women making healthcare decisions for their families.
So while the left follows the president's lead by attacking the Supreme Court and Republicans in Congress, diverting attention away from the economy and toward contraception, women are watching and listening. The party that puts forth a plan for an efficient, stronger, smaller government that protects our most vulnerable, yet doesn't bankrupt the next generation or take away its freedoms, will win women over. In the long run, President Obama has a far bigger problem with that than the Republicans do.
- Read the U.S. News debate: Will the New Ryan Budget Plan Hurt the GOP in 2012?
- See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.
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