The Democrats’ cynical exploitation of women voters may not work

By | September 28th, 2012

A key to the Democrats’ campaign strategy in 2012 is to exploit the gender gap in key races nationally - and try to help Pres. Obama win re-election - by scaring women on social issues rather than defending a miserable economic record.

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, revealed some of the cynical thinking in a Washington Post article, titled “Suburbs are key to victory in Colorado.”

“We created the largest gender gap in the country,” said Cecil, [referring to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's Colorado victory in 2010]. “The suburbs of Virginia, the suburbs of Indianapolis, the suburbs of Denver — you have people who are turned off by the sort of extreme points of view that now represent most of the Republican Party.” [Emphasis added]

Obama is following a similar playbook…

Yes, indeed.

In August, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow [see video above] put the Democrats’ national campaign strategy in a nutshell:

“That Michael Bennet playbook from Colorado from 2010 provides the political logic that explains why you are this year seeing ads like these from Pres. Obama’s presidential campaign.”

The Democratic messaging of “Too Extreme,” used by Bennet and allies against Republican opponent Ken Buck, is being deployed in a wide variety of contexts against Republican candidates at all levels. More specifically, in regard to abortion and reproductive issues, it’s apparent in the Connecticut, Virginia and Massachusetts U.S. Senate races.

Will that move female voters?

In the 2010 election, which saw Republicans take back the House of Representatives, ABC exit polling showed the GOP tying Democrats among women, 49-49, for the first time since 1982. But the difference by age group was stark:

“Young women favor Democrats for the House, (61 percent Democrat to 36 percent Republican among women 18-29 years old) but the gap closes for the 30-64 age group (64 percent of women), and reverses for women over 65 (41 per cent Democrat vs. 57 per cent Republican).

Much of the 2010 Tea Party surge among women can be attributed to older, married women getting engaged in politics to a degree they hadn’t before. Because they tended to vote on economic issues, rather than on the wedge issues of abortion and contraception, they tended to vote Republican.

But it’s really less of a gender gap than a marriage gap, a point made just before the 2010 mid-term elections by Page Gardner of Women’s Voices in a Huffington Post column.

Recent polling confirms it.

“Obama has a huge advantage with single women, 60 percent to 31 percent, while Romney leads among married women 49 percent to 42 percent,” according to a Reuters report in July of a Quinnipiac University poll.

That helps explain why Cecil, Democratic campaigns at many levels, and independent groups like NARAL would like to drive female voter turnout on hot-button issues. We wrote previously about NARAL planning to target 338,000 women in key swing districts as “Obama defectors” - those who had supported him in 2008 but now perhaps are leaning to Romney because of the weak economy.

Cecil, who was Sen. Bennet’s chief of staff before heading the DSCC, said in an August forum on the “State of Play in Colorado” that one of the keys is

“…the independent, unaffiliated women in the suburbs of Denver. If you look at why Sen. Bennet won, it was - in large part - maximizing our vote amongst the Latino community and then really dialing in and communicating directly with women in the Denver market. And the margins that were created there is really what led to victory. And I think a lot of that same dynamic is going to happen in the election in 2012.”

Given the volume and intensity of campaigns in a presidential election year - which we’ve previously noted - “communicating directly” may mean the advertising and social media equivalent of driving a car through the neighborhood every hour with a loudspeaker and bullhorn.

So, is that likely to work for Pres. Obama in a swing state like Colorado? Look more closely at Bennet’s victory, with 2010 exit polling from the Center for American Women and Politics.

In a year where the gender gap in most Senate races was in the single-digits, and in many cases the low single-digits, Bennet won Colorado women voters by 16 points, and was able to squeak through with a win, even while losing men by 14 points.

Recent swing-state presidential polls show - in Colorado - a nine-point lead for Obama among women, a nine-point lead for Romney among men, and a virtually tied race, as reported by the National Journal.

Michael Barone has noted that in the last three election cycles, the party vote for President has closely tracked the preceding aggregate party vote nationally for the House of Representatives.

That may help Republicans if it holds true this year. For Democrats, if there’s significant erosion in enthusiasm and turnout among younger, single women, that may undermine the gender gap they’re counting on.

The Democrats and their allies may believe that this a demographic where they still have significant enough upside to make the difference in close races, and that they have identified both the issue and the messaging that will move them. One example is the micro-targeting campaign announced by NARAL in their “Obama Defectors” campaign, which targets 338,000 women in “25 counties in nine battleground states“, including Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin.

There is, however, considerable risk in a strategy of patronizing women - and women realizing it.

In The Weekly Standard, Meghan Clyne wrote an article titled, “Can this be what women want?” and subtitled, “The Democrats condescend to half the electorate.”

“Womanhood is thus defined by the desire for unrestricted abortion and free birth control; women themselves are reducible to ovaries,” she writes.

“It was once permissible in American politics to view women as incapable of concerns beyond childbearing—but not in this century. And in addition to insulting women’s intelligence, this approach may well backfire. American women are active, thoughtful citizens; their political concerns are focused on the future of their nation, not the cheapest and easiest way to shut down their reproductive tracts.”

Certainly the reduction of women to walking anatomy, as displayed in a protest at the Republican National Convention, was a visible example of what Clyne described.

While the perceived threat to “reproductive rights” may have great emotional resonance for younger women, it’s also true that electing a president solely on those issues means living with a great many other economic, fiscal, and foreign policy decisions that they may not like at all. Women realizing that there’s an attempt by Democrats and their allies to manipulate their votes in that way may even form a backlash.

[Updated 9/29/12]