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Why Is Republican Outreach to Women So Awful?

Why Is Republican Outreach to Women So Awful?

By Bill Scher - October 6, 2014

Republicans have long complained that it’s unfair of Democrats to accuse them of waging a “war on women” largely based on their positions regarding abortion and birth control. Two years ago, the GOP party chair called it “a fiction,” suggesting Republicans have no more problem with women than they do with “caterpillars.”

New numbers have proved otherwise. Last week a National Journal analysis argued that the gender gap “has ballooned to historic proportions across 2014's battleground states.” While the average gap in Senate and gubernatorial races has in recent years been 13 points, this year it is “more than 20 points, and the gaps have topped 30 points in multiple polls of three races.” More precisely, “Republicans often lead among married women but get trounced among single women.”

The flurry of Republican ads targeting women confirm they know the gender gap is for real. But as the numbers indicate, the ads haven’t narrowed it; they often try too hard, miss the point and make the problem worse.

One way they do so is by feeding ham-fisted lines to bad actors. Take the ad “Talk,” produced by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS to help Colorado Republican Cory Gardner wrest a Senate seat from incumbent Mark Udall.  The ad is supposed to depict four women friends casually chatting about the election, and implicitly rejecting Udall’s accusations that Gardner wants to ban some forms of birth control. But the conservation is clunky from the start.

“I want a real conversation about the issues that matter,” says the first woman, thereby declaring that the four “friends” shall commence just such a conversation.

“Unfortunately after 15 years in Washington, political scare tactics are all Mark Udall has left,” says the second, sounding more like a politician than a real person.

“We aren’t single-issue voters,” says the third, sounding more like a political consultant than an ordinary voter.

Or check out “Dating Profile,” made by Americans for Shared Prosperity, another male-run Republican outside group.  The not-quite-clever premise is a single woman telling how she “fell in love” with an unspecified man’s “online profile” but now says the “relationship is in trouble” because of his failed promises. “He’s great at promises,” she huffs.

This ad tries to bluntly change the subject from reproductive freedom: “He thinks the only thing I care about is free birth control, but he won’t even let me keep my own doctor.” Then -- surprise! --  it turns out Barack Obama was online suitor.

Both of these ads also miss a larger point. They brusquely dismiss the concerns many women have about losing their reproductive freedom, and then decree what issues women should otherwise prioritize.

This strategic logic quickly runs into a brick wall: The GOP wouldn’t be having a problem with these voters if they didn’t already think issues surrounding access to abortion and birth control were important. Republicans are violating the “customer is always right” maxim. You can’t tell a woman that her values are wrong if you want her vote. To reach these voters, candidates need to either address the substance of those concerns, or at least find a way to disagree without being dismissive of them.

Finally, the ads make the problem worse by depicting women as two-dimensional caricatures. When watching “Dating Profile,” you can almost see the men behind the curtain concluding that the only way to get single women to talk politics is to first talk about dating.

The latest transgression comes from the College Republican National Committee, which just cut nearly identical ads for six GOP gubernatorial candidates spoofing the bridal shop reality TV show “Say Yes to the Dress.” In “Say Yes to the Candidate,” a young bride-to-be named Brittany peruses a line of wedding dresses as she says, “Budget is a big deal for me now that I’ve just graduated from college.”  In the Florida version, she gushes, “The ‘Rick Scott’ is perfect” because he’s a “trusted brand … with new ideas that don’t break your budget.”

While Brittany avoids any condescending mentions of birth control in her pitch for fiscal prudence, the entire bridal shop setting makes one’s head search rapidly for a desk to bang against. Slate’s Amanda Marcotte, in a piece titled “Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?,” wondered aloud “if the people being hired to do outreach to women on behalf of Republican candidates aren't all a bunch of Democratic moles.”

How can Republicans stop being so clumsy and awkward when reaching out to women? Ironically, their best chance might be to turn back the clock – to 1956, when the first Republican TV ads targeting women voters aired.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower won his first election in 1952 with the help of a gender gap: 58 percent of women supported him vs. 53 percent of men, in part because of opposition to the Korean War. In 1956, Eisenhower played to his base and maintained the gap, promoting equal pay in his State of the Union address and nomination acceptance speech. And he aired a four-minute ad explicitly courting women voters. 

Through modern eyes, the ad has some of the patronizing elements that mar today’s Republican outreach: the stereotyping (though in this case the presumption that women are by and large “the homemakers” accurately reflected the times) and the lecturing on what issues women should care about.  This wasn’t a problem for Eisenhower because of the standards of the era and because he wasn’t operating from a defensive posture, having already earned the mantle of the women’s candidate.

Where the 58-year old ad is strikingly different from today’s botched efforts is in letting women voters talk for themselves. Nine women take up half of the ad’s time, stating their support for the president in what appears to be their own words. Some testimonials are substantive; many are superficial (“he has a smile that can prove only one thing, and that is honesty”). But all come across authentic and not scripted.

(Additionally, Eisenhower had at least four short ads with first-person women testimonials, including one African-American woman and one “college girl,” all supporting the president’s foreign policy.)

Today’s Republicans should take a cue from Eisenhower. Simply go on the street with a camera, ask women if they’re voting Republican and, if so, why? Just maybe, the party will get some good answers, and learn something about what women voters actually want.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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