Watch the Foreign Policy Gender Gap

Campaigns and the media are dropping women back into binders to focus on foreign policy, disregarding the fact that it is an important issue for female voters.

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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney wave to the audience at the start of the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney wave to the audience at the start of the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

What a difference a week makes. Last week, national news outlets were falling over each other to declare women the decisive factor in this nail-biter of a presidential campaign. Former Gov. Mitt Romney gave us the newly-immortal "binders full of women" line to describe his concern for women's issues; it has already spawned follow-up ads from both campaigns as well as enough Internet humor to knock a half-percentage point off our national economic productivity.

As Monday's foreign policy debate approaches, however, commentators, media, and campaigns are dropping women back into our binders to focus on serious matters such as the exact wording of CIA talking points. (Since when does the CIA get to write the talking points, anyway? Not in my day…) No doubt they think that women, still worrying about abortion, jobs for our menfolk, and healthcare for our children, won't be paying attention—since, in the words of American University's Robert Durant, women arrive to elections "midway through the third act, look around, and decide who the heroes and villains are."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

This just might be a mistake. Why? Because, it turns out, women are more concerned about international issues—and more likely to say those issues will affect their votes—than men. In fact, that same USA Today/Gallup survey that showed Romney closing the gender gap last week ranked international issues number 2 out of 5 for women—something that might surprise all those (male) pundits who have asserted again and again that this isn't a national security election. 

What is it those women are looking for? For more than four decades, surveys in the United States and Europe have found that women are less likely to support "violent or forceful" policy options than men. So here's a look at how that plays out on this year's top issues, with a research hat tip to Heather Hamilton, formerly of the Connect U.S. Fund:

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?]

Valuing diplomacy, not bluster. A strong majority of women—62 percent—believe that the best way to protect America's national security is through diplomacy rather than military strength. About half of men (53 percent) said peace is best ensured through diplomacy. (Pew Global Issues survey, March 2011.)

Doubts on wars with Iran. Women are somewhat less supportive of possible military action in Iran than are men, 62 percent-54 percent, and even more eager to see U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, 56 percent-59 percent. (Pew Center for the People and the Press, March 2012.)

Given that, this other result from last week's Gallup poll is not surprising: Women think Obama would do a better job than Romney on foreign policy. When asked which candidate would better handle international issues, women choose Obama over Romney by strong margins: 51-44 percent  (Gallup, October 17, 2012.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

But not all the news goes President Obama's way. Women are much more hesitant than men to support his use of drones—51 percent of women approve of U.S. drone strikes, while 74 percent of men approve. (Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 2012.)

And when it comes to balancing the budget, women are more concerned than men about whether Pentagon spending can be reduced without harming veterans and military families.

We could sum up: Women are very concerned about security, perhaps more so than men. But they don't like the language of threats, violence, and bluster. What will they hear at the last debate?

  • Read Brad Bannon: Foreign Policy Debate Could End Mitt Romney's Campaign
  • Read G. Philip Hughes: How Stupid Do Obama and Biden Think We Are?
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