November 8 2012
Carrie L. Lukas
Here’s a fact: Men alone would have elected a President Romney. Women—who cast about 54 percent of the votes in this election—gave President Obama a double-digit margin, and another four years in the White House.
As conservatives study the election data in order to figure out what went wrong, they need to focus on overcoming the significant trust issues that women have with the GOP. Supporters of limited government and free markets need to find new ways to address women’s concerns, and build an understanding of how our principles will enhance the security and economic prospects of women and men alike.
Conservatives may have hoped that women would naturally be turned off by campaign rhetoric like Obama’s Life of Julia cartoon, which depicted women as dependent on government support at every stage of life. We assume that the belittling appeals to women to vote with their “lady parts”—as if matters of reproduction are all women have at stake—will backfire.
Yet even though these efforts reek of insulting sexist stereotypes, they didn’t put a dent in women’s support for Obama. Likely that’s because they built on a foundation of skepticism that women (particularly single women who went two-to-one for Obama) have about the GOP and conservatives, and their presumption that bigger government provides a better safety net and needed protection from a potentially hostile economy.
To open more women up to supporting conservative principles, we must address some myths about American society, and what drives conservatives’ policy preferences, head on.
One place to start would be the wage gap. Policy wonks may know that the idea that women are paid “77-cents-on-the-dollar” for the same work as a man has been thoroughly debunked. The statistical gap between men and women’s earnings is driven by the different choices men and women make about how to spend their time, and study after study shows that the gap shrivels once factors like industry and hours worked are taken into account. Yet this statistic remains a fixture in political discourse and likely colors many women’s perception of their prospects in a free economy.
Women need an education about how their decisions about what to study impact their future earnings, what careers and specialties to pursue to maximize earnings, and how many hours spent at their jobs will drive their long-term earning potential. They also need more information about how the Left’s “solutions” to the perceived wage gap problem—that’s more government oversight over how employers compensate workers, and more lawsuits, as proposed under the Paycheck Fairness Act—can backfire in terms of reducing the availability of jobs and making the workforce less flexible.
Women need to hear how well women are doing compared to men in academia, and how the United States’ historically dynamic market economy has actually been a source of great progress for women. The recent decades of technological progress, for example, has been a boon to women in terms of creating greater communication options and new paradigms for balancing work and family responsibilities.
Conservatives also need to be better prepared to respond when women’s health issues take center stage. In future years, historians soberly looking at the issues that plagued our country at this time will surely be amazed that Democrats succeeded in making the idea that Republicans want to limit access to birth control a key issue in this campaign. The actual substantive question under debate—whether employers, including those with religious-affiliations, should be required under law to pay for abortion-inducing drugs and contraception—is fundamentally a question of religious liberty and the limits of government’s power.
Essentially no one questions whether women should have access to contraception: Of course they should. Those who oppose the HHS mandate simply believe that government has no business compelling people to violate their religious convictions.
Yet that was lost in the media’s coverage of the issue. And this question of whether or not “access to contraception” was threatened became a part of the campaign’s fabric. Conservatives must become more adept at communicating about such issues, and find ways around the mainstream media which is all too happy to advance Democrats’ baseless charges, so that the Left’s cartoonish depictions of conservative positions aren’t again allowed to stick.
When talking about concerns about growing government dependency, conservatives also need to take care to paint a positive picture of their contrasting vision. After all, the alternative to endlessly bigger government isn’t a go-it-alone society, as President Obama would have citizens believe. The alternative is a more vibrant civil society, greater opportunity and prosperity so that people are able to live better while supporting themselves, and a strong safety net to help people get back on their feet and protect those who truly can’t help themselves.
This election confirms that conservatives must, simply must, expand the coalition of those supporting our principles to include more women. A more robust, sustained effort to start that conversation with new groups of women must begin today.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum and co-author of Liberty Is No War on Women.