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False Reports: GOP Not Losing Women in Contraception "War"

False Reports: GOP Not Losing Women in Contraception "War"

By David Paul Kuhn - April 2, 2012


New York Magazine's Frank Rich argued last week that there is, indeed, a "full-fledged Republican war on women." Rich asserted that this latest cultural debate is costing the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, women's support. He cited a single poll to prove his point. In March, Barack Obama ran ahead of Romney among women in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent to 37 percent. That does look bad. But what share of women supported Romney before the debate over contraception coverage in the new national health care law? Essentially the same share. In mid-January, the NBC/Journal poll found that women favored Obama over Romney, 54 to 38 percent. It was a statistically insignificant shift.

Rich’s mis-analysis is hardly unique. Sans evidence, CNN reported on March 6 that “the gender gap has been widening, with the president winning more women's support since this contraception controversy has become an issue.”

Three days later, The Washington Post gave the story front-page treatment. The article began: “The fragile gains Republicans had been making among female voters have been erased, a shift that has coincided with what has become a national shouting match over reproductive issues.” Except the trends did not coincide.

The Post cited the same poll as New York magazine. Thus, it too wrongly reported that Romney had lost women’s support over the course of this debate. The Post also referenced another question in the NBC/Journal survey: Which party would you like to see control Congress? The Post reported that Democrats’ four-percentage-point advantage on the generic ballot in the summer had widened to a 15-point advantage in the most recent poll. That was one way of framing the facts. It was just not an accurate way.

Democrats’ margin with women was indeed four points in August 2011. It was 16 points in October (13 in December, seven in November). Instead of cherry-picking a date, we should consider the time span that actually coincided with the contraception row. In the most recent NBC/Journal poll, which the Post cited, Democrats on the congressional ballot actually polled 14 points ahead among women. What about before the debate began? Democrats’ had a 15-point advantage with women in the same poll, on the same question, in mid-January. The Post’s big story was wrong in every way.

The day after the Post story, The New York Times ran a piece headlined “Centrist Women Tell of Disenchantment With Republicans." The reporter, like Rich, cited a singular poll to prove Romney was losing women over the course of this debate. She noted that Romney’s female support stood at 37 percent in the mid-February CBS News/New York Times poll. But a month earlier, Romney performed only two percentage points better with women in the same poll -- a shift also within the margin of error. By mid-March, on the other side of the contraception debate, Romney’s standing with women returned to precisely where it was before the controversy, 39 percent.

The contraception firestorm concerned substantive differences over women’s health policy, feminism, religious liberty and abortion. But the heated debate over women’s issues, which began at the close of January, did not cost Republicans women’s support. Quinnipiac and Public Policy Polling (D) exhibit the same trend. Gallup found that Romney actually improved with women between mid-December and mid-February, a few weeks into the contraception debate. Obama’s job performance rating with women, in the Gallup poll, has remained steady throughout the debate, bobbing around 50 percent since the beginning of the year.

The pillars of our print media are especially prone to these mistakes on social issues. The data is misreported on subjects ranging from immigration policy to substantive, and sometimes silly, analyses of the gender gap.

The mistakes are not uniformly one-sided. Sometimes it’s conventional wisdom that endures despite the facts. “Obama risks Catholic vote with birth-control mandate,” went a Reuters headline early in the debate. There has not been a “Catholic vote” for decades in American politics. The rate of attendance at church, not what church Americans attend, strongly relates to modern voting. Religious Catholics vote more like religious Protestants than other Catholics. Yet, more often than not, poor analysis on social issues colors leftward. One reason, as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said at the outset of this latest bout, the media has a blind spot on cultural issues.

Republicans should be concerned. The GOP nominee cannot win with only 37 percent of the female vote. Yet early head-to-head polls are not historically predictive. George W. Bush, like Romney, earned only 37 percent of the female vote in the CBS poll in February of 2000. But Bush won 43 percent of women on Election Day.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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