By Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal
To say that the Republican Party remains dominated by fossilized male dinosaurs who don't know how to talk to modern women—well, that would be mean. It would also be close to the truth.
The GOP's female problem may help lose the presidential election. Women—in particular women who are independent voters—are going to decide this race. They are the demographic most up for grabs. The campaigns know it, which explains the obsessive focus by both sides on the female electorate. And yet for all the Republican attention to the women's vote, the party is blowing a huge opportunity to bring women to its side.
It isn't as if Democrats are in tune with today's woman. The Obama campaign is serving a straight-up 1970s feminist agenda: contraception, abortion, equal pay. In this world view, women can't and don't think much beyond their reproductive apparatus. Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter this week went so far as to explain that women "aren't really concerned about what's happened over the past four years." Unemployment, gas prices, ObamaCare—these are not the concerns of women.
That outlook is offensive to every woman who spends 18-hour days wrestling the job, the house, the kids, the bills. Yet Democrats get away with it for one reason: Women appreciate that they are being spoken to directly. Decades of an aversion to "gender politics" has, by contrast, left the GOP with the antiquated view that it shouldn't address women directly on issues that matter specifically to them. The Romney campaign's idea of engaging female voters is to deputize women to repeat its broad campaign themes.
The Republican Party could take some hints from the success of the Independent Women's Forum, an outfit started in the 1990s by free-marketers who wanted a voice distinct from both the feminist left and the cultural right. The IWF's advocacy organization, Independent Women's Voice, has joined in some of today's electoral battles, using direct messaging to speak specifically to women and independents.
It does so by making clear, fact-based arguments on issues that matter to these groups—like health care. Women make 85% of health-care decisions. The GOP tends to bang on about parts of ObamaCare, such as the individual mandate, that are unpopular with its male base. The Independent Women's Voice, by contrast, is directly taking on elements of the law that are popular with women, explaining that seemingly attractive provisions—say, letting 26-year-olds stay on parental insurance—will in fact raise costs and worsen care. In controlled tests of the households where the IWV message had been received, the group found a significant uptick in women and independents who want the law repealed and who support Mr. Romney.
"A lot of political advertising is about sledgehammers and chain saws and beats you over the head," says IWV President and CEO Heather Higgins. "We assume our audience is smart, and want to be able to make up their own minds, and so we present them with facts."
IWV also isn't shy about cutting ads directly aimed at a female audience. That includes its witty "Boyfriend" Web ad, which shows a woman confiding to a friend about a guy who "seemed so perfect" but who just can't "get his act together." The camera subtly pulls back to show a poster of Mr. Obama. The ad was a Web sensation, so much so that the Republican National Committee copied it (with a lower-quality, less thoughtful version).
Republicans are correct in saying that their policies will help everyone, including women. What they fail to note is that their policies will help in specific and important ways. Women are subject to government programs and laws that never envisioned their economic presence and so ignore or penalize their work. Many of the reforms that Mr. Romney is advocating would provide a fix.
While Democrats brag about their Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Mr. Romney might note that the greatest pay injustice for women is the steep marginal tax-rate system that Mr. Obama loves. Since most women are second earners, their income is added to their husband's and taxed athis top rate. A married woman who does the same job as a single man keeps fewer of her dollars. Mr. Romney's tax reforms will benefit all taxpayers, but they will particularly benefit women. It's that simple.
Mr. Romney could note that his health-care reforms—which would finally empower families to buy affordable insurance outside the workplace—would especially help the millions of women who work part time and so don't qualify for corporate health plans. He could note that his plans for strengthening Medicare and eliminating the death tax will matter most to women, who tend to outlive their husbands. He could point out that the labor-force flexibility he promotes would allow women to craft more flexible work arrangements with their bosses—a top working-mother priority.
This isn't gender politics, and it isn't pandering. It's explaining. And it is an acknowledgment that women are a distinct economic constituency—with challenges markedly different from the men who are the dominant force in the GOP. That's the path to the women's vote.
Write to [email protected]