Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus had a point when in an appearance on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, he pushed back at the story published by Politico in which the publication spun two webs that showed the GOP continuing to trail the Democrats among female voters as proof that it was “stuck in the past.” Though Priebus is right to note that the generally negative view of the Democrats held by women is nearly as bad as that of Republicans, there’s no denying that a gender gap exists. More to the point, there’s little use denying that it’s bound to get worse in 2016.
As Preibus noted, the internal polls conducted by two conservative PACs—Crossroads GPS and American Action Network—showed that 49 percent of women view Republicans negatively while 39 percent think the same of Democrats. That’s a clear gender gap and a big advantage for Democrats in any election. But the spin on the poll coming from Politico seemed to center on the notion that the GOP was hopelessly out of touch with most women who viewed them as insensitive to their issues. While carping about the characterization of his party, he acknowledged that the problem is serious and he also asserted that it was not insurmountable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this situation.
The first is that although the Democrats’ charge that Republicans are waging a “war on women” is the lowest kind of specious partisan propaganda, it has worked. Though married women still support Republicans, the problem for the GOP is that the far more numerous unmarried women have bought into the Democrats’ tactics, especially in the Middle West and Northeast.
Why? Because many young, liberal women have accepted the notion that conservative positions on economic issues and the need for smaller government hurts them. Moreover, to a generation of women who have come to believe the unfettered right to abortion and free contraception from their employers is essential to their well being, GOP arguments are bound to fall flat.
The second is that if Hillary Clinton is, as is likely, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, nothing Preibus and the Republicans do is likely to narrow the gender gap.
So should the GOP give up? No. But its expectations must be tempered by a knowledge that the Democratic advantage with the mainstream media and in the world of popular culture are going to make it very hard to erase their deficit until they find national candidates who can appeal to more women.
The RNC’s proposed response to the problem makes sense. It advocates seeking to “neutralize” Democratic arguments about “fairness” by pointing out that the best way to deal with inequality is to reform liberal big government programs that encourage the dependency that hurts poor families and women. It also correctly advises that the only way for a pro-life party to deal with abortion is to acknowledge the disagreement and then move on to other issues and to rely on the fact that many women have concerns about abortion and that even most supporters of it don’t view it as a litmus test issue. Yet if a GOP consultant quoted by Politico is right to say that many women view Republicans as the “old, white, right, out of touch” party, then it is necessary for the GOP to put forward younger, diverse candidates who can appeal to more voters.
That’s easier said than done, but it’s also just as obvious that what Republicans need to do is to recruit more female candidates. That’s something the party has done better in recent years and it can cite successes such as New Mexico’s Governor Susana Martinez, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers from Washington to prove it. But, as with the need to get more visible Hispanics on the GOP line, the need for more female GOP leaders must become a priority rather than an afterthought.
For all of the negative poll numbers about women voters, Republicans need not be afraid of waging a war of ideas against a Democratic Party that has staked its future on returning to the failed liberal patent nostrums of the 1960s. But, as Preibus rightly pointed out, it is not enough to have good ideas. You’ve got to take them to the voters and articulate them in a way that can be understood and supported. Politics is, above all, a test of personalities, and until the voters start associating the GOP more with the likes of Martinez, Ayotte, and Rogers than with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, they’re not likely to change their minds.
Which is why the impending lesson of 2016 ought to be concentrating the minds of Republicans on promoting conservative women to leadership positions in the years to come. Hillary Clinton’s presence at the top of the Democratic ticket is such a powerful symbol that it is bound to offset most of the GOP’s efforts to make headway with women. Yet that makes it all the more important for a party that already has a gender gap to ensure that Republican women aren’t tokens or outliers but equal partners in promoting conservative ideas.