Women re-elected President Obama. That’s no surprise: Women typically favor Democrats; men, Republicans. And so it was in this election. More startling is this exit poll finding: Among those voters who chose “cares about people” as the most important candidate quality, Romney lost by a jaw-dropping 18%-81%.
This begins to explain conservatives’ challenge, particularly with women.
Conservatives typically argue limited government and economic freedom are best for women and men alike. After all, we know that women, like men, benefit from faster economic growth, more job opportunities, and a rising standard of living, all of which are advanced by allowing the private sector to control more resources.
Yet it’s increasingly clear that women (particularly single women) have a fundamental skepticism about the GOP and conservative ideas. Many women accept the presumption that bigger government offers needed protection from an inherently hostile economy, plus they see conservatives as indifferent to their challenges and mostly interested in enriching themselves and their friends.
Conservatives need to overcome this suspicion. We need to explain that we care about how policies impact real people; that we support our positions because we believe they lead to better lives for all Americans, while still helping people weather the bad times that are inevitable in good economies, let alone in this one.
Perceptions of “fairness” also present an opportunity. Research conducted by Evolving Strategies found that how women define fairness—as equality of outcomes or equality of opportunity—drives their feelings about policy questions. The greater moral weight a woman places on “equal outcomes,” the more likely she was to support government-growing legislation. In fact, more than any other factor—party identification or demographic characteristic—a woman’s perception of fairness was the best guide to her position.
This means that to open more women up to supporting conservative policy solutions, we must address some myths about American society and demonstrate how our path is more compassionate, more fair and will best protect society’s most vulnerable.
One place to start is the wage gap. Policy wonks know that the notion women are paid “77 cents on the dollar” for the same work as a man has been thoroughly debunked. Yet this statistic remains a fixture and likely colors many women’s perception of their prospects in a free economy.
Women need to hear how decisions about education, careers and specialties, and about how much to work, largely determine earnings and cause the wage gap. They also need more information about how proposed “solutions” could backfire in terms of reducing job opportunities and reducing workplace flexibility. These big government policies can lead to politically determined, inherently unfair outcomes that hurt society’s most vulnerable. What’s compassionate about that?
Conservatives should also explain how the dynamic market economy has been a source of great progress for women. The technological revolution, for example, has been a particular boon to women in creating new communication options and paradigms for balancing work and family.
When discussing growing welfare rolls, conservatives have to show that foremost we are upset that ill-conceived government policies have hurt so many, leaving them with no choice but to seek assistance. Then conservatives need to paint a positive picture of our contrasting vision. After all, the alternative to endlessly bigger government isn’t a go-it-alone society, as President Obama pretends. The alternative is a more vibrant civil society and greater opportunity and prosperity so that more people can support themselves.
This election confirmed that conservatives must expand the coalition of those supporting our principles to include more women. This doesn’t require a change in positions, but rather a better articulation of how our principles are more equitable and compassionate and the foundation for restoring the American dream.