Mitt Romney's Plan to Woo Female Voters: Pretend Women Are Very Stupid
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.
Of course, just because the contraception issue is primarily an economic issue doesn’t mean that the Republican assumption that sexual liberty isn’t a “real” issue is right. Romney and his mouthpieces condescendingly wave off the argument that women care about contraception in part to make it sound like only silly and inconsequential people care about having access to a healthy and happy sex life.
In the real world, far more than sex positive activists believe that only those who can pay out of pocket for escalating contraception costs deserve to have normal sex lives. Most voters have sex, and many of them have it on a fairly regular basis. To hear right-wing pundits talk about contraception, you’d think that people who need it because they have sex a couple of times a week are sex-crazed monsters. In reality, they’re pretty normal. Having sex on a regular basis is as American as watching TV or drinking cheap beer. If you tried to take those things away from Americans — or at least insist that they should be affordable only to the well-off — you’d hit a massive wall of resistance from voters, both male and female. So why should sex be any different?
Most insultingly, the claim that female voters don’t care about contraception, because they’re worried about jobs assumes that women are too stupid to care about any more than one issue at a time. Women can, in fact, both worry about high unemployment while being annoyed that right-wing politicians consider contraception “slut pills” instead of a normal part of health care. In fact, since the issues are related — a politician who cares about making sure women can afford contraceptive care is more likely to care about making sure women have employment opportunities — concerns about these two issues fit neatly together. What female voters have learned from the recent debacles over contraception coverage and Planned Parenthood’s funding is not just that Republicans have serious problems with female sexuality, but also that they don’t care if women have economically stable lives with affordable health care. We can make the leap from there to realizing they probably don’t care if we have good jobs, either. Suggesting that we’re too stupid to make connections like that isn’t exactly the best way to win over female voters who are already suspicious that Republicans have a problem with women.