It should be no surprise that the months-long focus on access to contraception, which enjoys broad support among voters, is giving President Obama an edge with women voters.
Pew research and other polling organizations have shown that there has been a growing gender gap on the presidential level, with President Obama doing better with women against his likely rival in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney than the president did against Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) at the same point in 2008. But other recent numbers show the presidential race isn’t the only one being affected.
It’s one point both Democrats and Republicans agree on: Social issues at the top of the ticket are poisoning the well and creating a gender gap across the board — mostly to the benefit of Democrats.
The numbers are fairly stark. In two polls of the Senate races in Ohio and Florida released Thursday, Quinnipiac University identified a major gender gap. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has opened up a commanding 17-point lead among women over Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) while leading the overall race by 10 points. Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-FL) overall 8-point advantage over Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) in Quinnipiac’s Florida numbers was “fueled by female voters,” as women went for Nelson by 14 points. In both races, the candidates were in a dead heat with male voters.
A poll commissioned earlier this month by EMILY’s List, the PAC dedicated to electing pro-choice, Democratic women, showed 48 percent of voters, including 40 percent of Republicans, less likely to vote for a candidate who voted for the Blunt Amendment, which sought to allow employers to deny contraception coverage based on moral or religious reasons. But neither Mandel nor Mack did (since neither yet serves in the Senate), although Mack hit Nelson for voting against it.
Both Democrats and Republicans explain the gender gap for Mandel and Mack as guilt by association. In other words, they may not have voted for the Blunt Amendment, but they haven’t distanced themselves from their party’s moves.
“Women are rightly seeing this as a party-wide obsession for the Republicans,” EMILY’s List deputy communications director Jess McIntosh told TPM in an email, “and you’re going to see that play out in races all over the country.”
One factor at play is “the dynamic of the Republican presidential race,” echoed Justin Barasky, communications director for Brown’s campaign. “You’ve got these candidates who are so out there on women’s issues, so, so out of the mainstream, that I think Republicans all over the place are being hurt.”
It’s a point some Republicans agree with. Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, thinks Republicans have been “sidetracked” by social issues, using Rush Limbaugh’s comments, for example, to create a “sideshow.” That’s not to say she thinks the Blunt Amendment was a mistake, but rather, Republicans allowed Democrats to define the debate.
“I think the Democrats have very carefully sidetracked the debate by bringing up some of these social issues as being foremost in women’s minds,” Chornenky told TPM. “With the social issues being focused on, I think we lose the true attention of the women voters because that’s just so much talk to them, they’re definitely focused on the economy and other issues.”
Chornenky agreed that this is a problem for the whole party, that it’s hurting individual candidates, and will do so until Republicans return the debate to other issues.
“A lot of this is just a party branding issue at this point,” Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, told TPM. “It goes back to Santorum and everything else. … A lot of people would be better off distancing themselves from Santorum, in a lot of states.” But Davis doesn’t think the problem will necessarily last until November. “You’ve got six or seven months before the election, so you have time to reset a little bit. But the narrative has just not been good to a significant block of women.” To close these gaps, Republicans need to “reassess in terms of their approach to women voters,” he said.
But for Mandel and Mack to sever themselves from more strident positions on social issues might be harder than it seems. While neither has a Senate record to defend, they do have records in their home states. Mack, a congressman, has a voting record that includes being a co-sponsor of the 2011 No Tax Payer Funding For Abortion Act, which would seriously compromise access to abortion services.
In Ohio, Mandel was an early supporter of the so-called “heartbeat” bill to ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected in a fetus. If the bill is eventually passed, it would likely be the nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion law.
The same dynamics are at play in Virginia as well, where a poll last week showed a nine-point gender gap between the Democratic nominee for Senate, Tim Kaine, and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination George Allen. It’s a state where, like Ohio, state-level anti-abortion bills have only added to the focus on social issues recently. But Allen could find himself in the same boat as Mandel and Mack. Allen ultimately said he supported the Blunt Amendment and has expressed support for fetal personhood legislation.
“Certainly when we are doing our poll in Virginia, it was very pronounced in the numbers,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, told TPM of the gender gap in the Virginia Senate race. “The recent issues in gender politics have mobilized the Democratic base — it does have an impact, it tempers and shapes the debate in the short run.”
Miringoff credits Limbaugh with turning up the volume, moving it from a more traditional D.C.-style debate over social issues and making it insulting. “There’s no doubt that social issues are in play,” he said, but cautioned against the idea that the controversy would follow Republicans all the way to Election Day. “All things being equal, the unemployment is the one thing you want to know. We’re not going to be talking about Rush Limbaugh in November, presumably.”
And that’s how Democrats see it too. “There’s more going on than Blunt Amendment and Limbaugh — those things certainly are damaging, [Republicans] were off in dangerous territory,” Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster and founder of Momentum Analysis told TPM. “But there’s a reflection of a strong Democratic movement right now. You have a GOP that’s losing its way with women voters — all they can say is that they want to take away your birth control and call your daughter a slut.” But there wouldn’t be a situation where Democrats are doing well and there wasn’t a gender gap, Oremo said, referring to the party’s traditional edge with women.
For Republican candidates, the issue is compounded. Not only do they fall on the wrong side of the polling on the contraception debate, but every day the talk about it is a day they don’t talk about jobs. And Democrats are reveling in reminding voters of that fact.