The Same Old GOP Shows Up in Virginia

The Virginia gubernatorial race shows the GOP hasn’t learned how to appeal to women voters.

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Republican gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a political science class at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that one exists. After losing the race for the White House for a second time in a row in 2012, the Republican National Committee, in essence, called and said, "Houston, we have a problem."

Over the course of several months, an "autopsy" was conducted to assess what went wrong in the 2012 elections. Every aspect of the campaign and party operation was audited: from technology deficiencies to shifting demographics, from general messaging to the branding of the party. All data and campaign themes were dissected.

Among the various issues the analysis highlighted was the need to attract more female voters. In 2008, John McCain lost the women's vote by 14 points. That result was repeated in 2012, when Mitt Romney lost the same women's vote by 12 points, losing single women voters by more than 38 percent.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

The 2012 presidential election represented the largest gender gap in history – specifically, the margin between men's and women's support of a candidate (20 points). The party's autopsy reminded itself that women "represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections." In 2012, women were 53 percent of the electorate and, in swing states like Virginia, nearly half a million more women voted than their male peers. 

The second step in problem solving is to devise a plan. In the "autopsy" that was conducted and the analysis that followed, there were many recommendations on how to better appeal to the female voter, including the need to better communicate and use language that addressed their concerns. The report stated, "candidates, spokespeople, and staff need to use language that addresses concerns that are on women's minds in order to let them know we are fighting for them."

So, after a problematic issue is identified and recommendations are made on how to solve the problem, the third step is to execute the plan. 

The 2013 governor's race in Virginia offers the first post-autopsy opportunity for the GOP to execute and test its problem-solving skills. If the current polls are any indication of the outcome in November, Republicans have a lot more work to do.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is the GOP's Problem in its Strategies or its Policies?]

According to a Washington Post/Abt SRBI poll, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has opened up a five-point lead over his Republican opponent, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. This lead has been almost completely attributed to a shift by women voters. In May, the two candidates were even among women, but this week's poll shows that women now prefer McAuliffe by a whopping 24-point margin. When asked "whom do you trust to do a better job handling issues of concern to women?" McAuliffe is trusted more by a 48 to 25 percent margin. 

The pollsters theorize that the shift has occurred in large part due to the numerous ads about Cuccinelli's out-of-the-mainstream stances on women's health care, reproductive rights and personal safety. For example, as attorney general, Cuccinelli refused to sign onto a bipartisan letter penned by 47 other state attorneys general urging Congress to reauthorize the federal Violence Against Women Act – an act that received overwhelming support in the Congress and was later signed into law.

This race points to the potential deficiencies in the GOP's plan. When candidates take positions on issues that a majority of women voters oppose, it ignores the basic dynamic and makes it near impossible to win the vote. 

Typically, the fourth step in problem solving is to check and assess the results. If the Virginia race is any indication, it seems the GOP ought to be heading back to the drawing board instead of preparing more campaign launches without a change in the model. 

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