By Jack Torry
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio.
More than half of the votes in the 2016 presidential election will be cast by women, and more than half of those women are likely to vote for the Democratic nominee.
Those facts are major reasons why Democrats have won four of the past six presidential elections and why since 1992 only one Republican nominee has received more than half of all the votes.
Even after the Republicans scored a major triumph in November by winning control of the U.S. Senate, analysts say the GOP will need to improve its showing among women in 2016, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a strong favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee.
Although the Democratic Party’s general support for reproductive rights is often cited as the explanation for a majority of women voting against every Republican nominee since 1992, analysts say women consider a wide array of issues.
“The most fundamental difference that underlies the gender gap has to do with the role of government in our lives, which is where women are more in line with the Democratic Party,” said Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Those issues include not only the economy but also access to affordable health care, improvements in early-childhood education, gun control, day care for children, family leave and efforts to equalize pay among men and women for similar jobs.
That leads Carroll to say that “Most Americans feel the government is too big, but the difference is women are more concerned about preserving the social safety net.”
Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington, said “Women are focused on the policy priorities that are relevant to their everyday lives,” pointing out that many working women are responsible for at least half of their family’s income.
Although women are concerned about more than reproductive rights, Republicans’ comments about the issue have hurt the party in the past.
In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans were hampered by the harsh rhetoric employed by Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, both of whom opposed abortion even in the case of rape. At one point, Akin infuriated women when he said that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Jessica Towhey, a former adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, said Akin’s ” idiotic comments were really unfortunate. The frustrating part of that was the media decided he was representative of the party, and that is simply not true.
But Republican candidates were called on to answer for his comments.”
This year, Republicans toned down their rhetoric, while Democratic congressional candidates fell back on the theme of a GOP “war on women” that worked so well in 2012 — focusing largely on abortion rights.
“Women are much more sophisticated customers politically than people believe,” Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said. “Part of the reason why the ‘war on women’ failed is because it presumed you have one message for women. We are the ultimate multitaskers.”
In addition to missing out on the backing of a majority of women — particularly young, single women — Republicans have difficulty gaining the votes of swing voters known as “Wal-Mart moms” — women who have shopped at Wal-Mart at least once during the past month and have children younger than 18.
In a survey after the November election by the Washington-based polling organizations Public Opinion Strategies and Purple Strategies,
51 percent of Wal-Mart mothers said they had voted for Democratic congressional candidates this year; 46 percent voted for Republicans.
And even though Wal-Mart mothers backed Republicans in the 2010 congressional elections, they supported President Barack Obama in his winning 2008 and 2012 campaigns. If Clinton can appeal to this group, she will have a major advantage in 2016.
“She has an advantage, perhaps in part because she is a woman, but also because she supports policies that help women,” said Margie Omero, a Democratic strategist who is managing director of research at Purple Strategies.
Conway, who acknowledges that the party has “done a terrible job” among female voters in past campaigns, doubts that Clinton will strike a chord among younger women or Wal-Mart mothers.
Pointing out that the average American woman earns $50,000 a year, Conway said Clinton “can make in a 25-minute speech what it takes the average American woman 4.25 years to earn. Apart from her gender and her victimhood, what connection does she have with the average American woman?”
Even Democrats such as Washington consultant Peter Fenn acknowledge that Clinton will not be able to play the “I am just like you” card, but instead will need to wage a vigorous campaign on behalf of issues that women care about. “If she does that, she’ll be fine,” Fenn said.
Yet recent history demonstrates that Democratic women do not automatically vote for female candidates.
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant in Boston, said that “Women are the majority in this country by population and as registered voters. If women only voted for women, there would be more women in office.”
During the intense primary struggle in 2008 between Obama and Clinton, exit polls showed that Clinton won a majority of the female vote in just 20 of the 35 state contests.
Many analysts blame Clinton, who seemed reluctant to overtly seek the backing of women.
Not until she ended her campaign, in June 2008, did she finally speak to the rare nature of her candidacy, telling her supporters that “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”
“It already looks like she is taking a different approach this time,” Carroll said. “To the extent she does that, it will help to attract more support from women voters than she would otherwise have. It adds a little boost.”