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Mitt Romney's Plan to Woo Female Voters: Pretend Women Are Very Stupid

Romney seems to assume that women don't care about sexual rights. But reproductive issues impact almost all women.

Mitt Romney has finally accepted that he has lady problems. After blithely dismissing suggestions that he might lose female voters by embracing radical antichoice positions that extend beyond just merely opposing abortion rights into attacking contraception, Romney has finally had to face up to a rapidly widening gender gap in the polls. One poll has Obama besting Romney in a dozen critical states by 18 points with female voters. Female voters seem to be hearing the Democratic claim that Republicans are waging a war on women, most likely because there’s heavy evidence showing that’s exactly what’s going on.

In response, Romney’s strategy has been to argue, “Nuh-uh! It’s you guys who are waging a war on women!” To shore up this childish and farcical argument, Romney’s team is hiding behind Ann Romney, pretending she’s being victimized for her sainted motherhood. More disturbingly, the campaign has circulated the claim that women have suffered massive job losses under Obama, implying that Obama is pretty much out to separate the female worker from her job. The implication is that women are too busy worrying about economic concerns to pay much mind to the Republican assault on reproductive rights and that Romney somehow is a better sell to women on economics.

The most obvious problem with this argument is that it’s just not true.  It relies on a deliberate misreading of the jobs data that shows that both men and women took heavy job losses because of the recession that happened on Bush’s watch. It’s just that women’s jobs were slashed a little more slowly, which says nothing about Obama’s policies.

Unfortunately, facts don’t matter very much in politics, which is no doubt why Romney hopes this attack will work. But even if you set aside the facts, the claim that women don’t care about contraception, because they’re too busying worrying about jobs, simply doesn’t fly. It contains three assumptions about how voters understand the issues: That economics is a simple issue, that voters don’t really care about sexual rights and that voters — at least female voters — are just plain stupid. All three of these assumptions are false, and Romney’s strategy is likely to backfire because of it.

First of all, the argument that female voters care about jobs and not contraception assumes incorrectly that the two are separate issues. Romney has fallen into the Republican framework around the issue of contraception, assuming that it’s just about sexually overactive young women wanting to get it on without “consequences” and that it has no real dimensions outside of the sexual ones. This is a grave error. Yes, contraception is about sex, but as a policy issue, it’s primarily an economic concern that’s inseparable from other concerns around housing, jobs and health care.

In the real world, concerns about employment and contraception are thoroughly intertwined for female voters. Women’s primary concerns when they elect to use contraception are typically economic. Women use contraception to time their pregnancies around economic considerations, waiting to complete education and to find secure employment before having babies, knowing that getting pregnant beforehand can seriously hurt future employment prospects. In addition, unintended pregnancy is hurting your pocketbook one way or another. Either you have to pony up for the abortion or have an extremely expensive baby. At its core, contraception is an economic issue.

In general, female voters tend to be more sensitive to suggestions that politicians don’t care about the real world concerns of everyday people. Even for women who don’t necessarily need contraception at this point in their lives, Romney’s bone-headed unwillingness to admit that it’s an important part of women’s health care or to understand that it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to get suggests that he’s just out of touch. In this sense, the contraception issue is a good stand-in for women’s larger desire to see politicians who actually get what it’s like for ordinary people running households. If you don’t get why women might want to time their pregnancies, you don’t understand the first thing about what economics looks for ordinary people trying to run households.

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