What you don’t know about female voters

Posted April 22, 2012, at 7:06 a.m.

Have female voters ever been more talked about, pitched to or chased after? Both President Obama and Mitt Romney mention the strong women in their lives every chance they get. And each claims that the other candidate is bad for us — with Democrats talking up the Republican “war on women” and the GOP countering that the real casualties are the women who’ve lost their jobs since Obama became president. But female voters are so diverse that there could never be one straightforward answer to what we want — so pandering to us is complicated. Thankfully, it’s no longer assumed that women tend to vote like their husbands or fathers. But some hardy myths persist. Let’s examine what really makes women tick.

1. Women vote together.

When we talk about female voters, we need to be specific about which women we mean. White, married, rural and suburban women have been trending Republican for years. In fact, white women as a whole haven’t gone Democratic since 1964. While for single, highly educated and urban women, the opposite is true; those remain reliably Democratic demographics.

Obama, who enjoys a double-digit lead among female voters, recently said that “women are not some monolithic bloc. Women are not an interest group. … Women are over half this country and its workforce.” That is as true today as it was when Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg told me the same thing in 2007.

2. Female voters favor female candidates.

Women consistently say they’d prefer to vote for a woman. But once in the voting booth, they don’t automatically favor female candidates.

In The Washington Post in 2008, feminist writer Linda Hirshman scolded women for failing to support Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama: “Even though this is also a year with the first major female presidential candidate, women are split every way they can be. They’re the only voting bloc not voting their bloc. For the Clinton campaign, this is devastating.”

And it was instructive. By the end of the primaries, Obama had won younger women’s votes, while Clinton had captured women over 65 and barely won a majority of women.

In fact, women are insulted by appeals that suggest they automatically favor female candidates, which is part of the reason Clinton didn’t play the gender card too overtly through much of the campaign. Younger women in particular find this “hammer, meet nail” approach offensive. That’s why you rarely hear female candidates in either party making that pitch.

3. Women vote based on “women’s issues,” such as abortion rights and contraception.

A recent poll of voters in swing states showed that women’s top priorities are health care, gas prices, unemployment and the deficit — in that order — with “government policies toward contraception” coming in last. (Women are, however, much more likely than men to rate government policy on birth control as important — 55 percent to 35 percent in the same USA Today-Gallup poll.)

Even on abortion rights, women are nearly as divided as the country as a whole, which broke 49 percent to 45 percent in favor of abortion rights in Gallup polling last year. And though 50 percent of women identify as pro-choice and 44 percent as pro-life, age and party affiliation are far better predictors than gender of views on abortion.

Among Democratic women, the perception that Republicans are waging a “war on women” has undeniably boosted enthusiasm and raised money. But how women feel about access to contraceptives also seems to have more to do with party affiliation than gender, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released last month. And fewer than 1 percent of respondents mentioned women’s health or birth control as top election-year issues.

4. A candidate’s wife can deliver women’s votes.

This idea seems to have taken hold in a whole new way this year, with many pundits — and at times, even Romney himself — arguing that Ann Romney holds the key to his efforts to win over female voters.

When asked recently how he intends to close the gender gap, Mitt Romney even said he wished his wife were there to answer: “She says that she’s out there going across the country and talking with women, and what they’re talking about is the debt that we’re leaving the next generation and the failure of this economy to put people back to work. She says she talks to women who are concerned about the jobs their kids are going to get, and they wonder whether their future is going to be prosperous and bright as has been our lives.”

Yet there is no evidence that women have ever favored the candidate whose spouse they like best; if that were the case, John Edwards would have fared a lot better in 2004 and 2008. After all, Hillary Clinton wasn’t as well-liked back in 1992, but that didn’t seem to hurt Bill Clinton.

5. Men decide elections.

While it’s true that women tune in to campaigns later than men, women turn out to vote in greater numbers — and have done so for decades. Since 1980, the proportion of women who vote has topped the proportion of men who do. And it was higher than ever in 2008, with 65.7 percent of eligible women voting, compared with 61.5 percent of men.

In interviews with female voters across the political spectrum, I hear two things over and over: One is how turned off they are by the name-calling, negative ads and intense partisanship of the political process, and the other is how much they’d like to be more involved in civic life. That women so reliably show up to vote despite all their reservations is testament to that hope. And it’s why we’ll be hearing a lot more about the “war on women” and the war over women’s votes between now and November.

Melinda Henneberger covers national politics for The Washington Post and anchors the “She the People” blog.

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