A virtue of the ridiculously long and seemingly perpetual election cycle in the United States is that it does elicit moments of truth from politicians, who have so much time to accidentally say what they really mean. The 2012 election seemed awash in Republican politicians who could not keep themselves from offending women with their spasms of truth-talk. Two Republicans running for the U.S. Senate lost what should have been sure-bet elections after they let themselves say things like: raped women can’t get pregnant (Todd Akin, Missouri), and pregnancy following a rape is a blessing (Richard Mourdock, Indiana). They were not elected in stronghold Republican states. God works in mysterious ways.
A third Republican running for Congress in Washington State, John Koster, lost a tight race after being recorded last week saying that “the rape thing” does not justify abortion. Koster acknowledged that his statement may have hurt his chances, commenting, “That’s the sad part of this race . . . . We wanted to talk about jobs, the economy.” So his point was that he didn’t want women to know his true, extremist views? Or that women don’t deserve to know his views on their rights to their bodies? He would determine their priorities? The misogyny is palpable.
All of these men were at some point denied national Republican Party support, but none stepped aside, and so Republicans were tarred by the statements their candidates made. Mourdock was the only Senate candidate Romney endorsed. Hard to believe the RNC didn’t know the extremism of these candidates until they let slip their true views to the public.
When added to Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s push in the House to halt any funding of Planned Parenthood (whether related to abortion or not), and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s shift to oppose abortion and to favor overturning Roe v. Wade, and the other myriad ways in which Republicans across the country attacked women’s autonomy and rights, as I discussed in this column, it should be no surprise that the Republicans lost critical swing states in part because women were more inclined to vote for Democrats.
According to the exit polls, 55% of women voted for Obama, while 44% voted for Romney. In fact, Romney outpaced Obama in only one main category of voters: white men. In a country of increasing racial diversity, and one where women constitute 54% of the population, this should keep Republican leadership up all night for a while, assuming they want to learn from their mistakes.
The Republican Leadership Is on Mars
There has been much talk after the election about how out of touch the Republican Party seems to have become, and the gender gap is a significant part of that. The white men at the top of the party seemed genuinely surprised by Romney’s loss. Republican political strategist and senior Romney advisor Ed Gillespie embarrassingly told reporters before the polls closed that he expected Romney to earn over 300 Electoral College votes. He was far, far off the mark. Romney won a mere 206 to Obama’s 303 (excluding the still-being-counted Florida votes). And who told the Romney campaign it was worth their while to court the Pennsylvania vote on the day of the election? Had they seen the new ad that had Mitt Romney on numerous occasions saying that Roe v. Wade should be overturned? Whether you took that ad to mean he is in opposition to women’s liberty, or saw it as just the most recent reminder of Romney the flip-flopper, my guess is that it sealed the deal against Romney and therefore in favor of Obama for many women in Southeastern Pennsylvania. I assume that the Republicans are already looking for more in-touch, reliable pollsters, but, at the same time, it does appear that the leadership was, unbelievably, unaware of the very existence of the constituencies they have turned off.
If there is any doubt that the electorate is more pro-female and minority than the Republican Party leaders comprehend, look at the election results in the congressional races. In a historic moment, women will now occupy 20% of Senate seats for the first time; and white males have lost their majority status in the Democratic caucus in the House. In January, there will be 16 Democratic female Senators and four Republican female Senators. Plus, Democrats elected the first Asian American to the Senate (Tammy Hirono of Hawaii) and the first openly gay Senator (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin). If the Party’s demographic missteps are not already obvious, think about this: White male Republican Paul Ryan did not deliver his own state of Wisconsin for Romney, while Wisconsin voters approved the first openly gay Senator. That is a double message for the Republicans. And, finally, in a year when Republicans supposedly had the upper hand, they lost seats in the House, narrowing their majority.
A Missed Opportunity on the Economy
There was a time before President George W. Bush’s tenure—during which his Administration permitted spending to run out of control and the economy tanked at the very end of his second term—when Republicans could claim that they were the party of fiscal restraint and success. If there was ever an election when those qualities should have prevailed, 2012 was it. But Romney failed to sell his solution for solving the economic downturn. Women do indeed care about the economy (see the point below about their wanting to be paid for their work), but men can’t just tell them what the men think they need to know, and then expect them to fall in line. Gone are the days when women vote as their husbands dictate—if they ever did. (I think Abigail Adams may have struck a death blow to that idea long ago.)
Part of the problem was that the Republicans had to take some responsibility for the downturn originally. More importantly, though, Romney refused to be frank about whose ox would be gored by his budget and tax-cutting. He was intentionally opaque on that point, which meant that the Republican ticket did not stand out against the Democratic ticket as offering a compelling economic solution. Romney’s telling Americans he would “restore 12 million jobs” sounded like hocus pocus to Americans who were jaded by the preceding economic slowdown, and, to those on the East Coast, recently battered by a massive hurricane.
The Republican Party Became a Party Defined by Social Negatives
Without scoring decisive points on the economy, the Republican Party staked its reputation on a brazenly extremist conservative Republican Party Platform, rife with social issues, as I discussed in this column. So what did the Republicans stand for, in the 2012 election? The most memorable positions were Paul Ryan’s drive to defund Planned Parenthood; Mitt Romney’s yo-yoing on abortion so much that, in the end, any rational person had to conclude that he couldn’t give 2 cents about the issue; callous insensitivity to rape victims; and opposition to gay marriage. That is not a package for success, as it turns out.
In a nutshell, there were probably two positions (reflected in the Republican Platform) that were seen as being reliably Republican: (1) opposition to abortion and even contraception; and (2) opposition to gay marriage. In other words, the Republican Party has come to be defined primarily by negatives.
The former position—rejecting reproductive rights—turns off a majority of women, while the latter, anti-gay-marriage position is actually incomprehensible to most young people, who by large majorities have no problem with gay marriage. A Party can only ignore these two demographics at its peril, as the Republican Party learned on Tuesday. President Obama, early in the campaign, publicly endorsed gay marriage, which the dinosaurs among the Republicans assumed would hurt him. Quite to the contrary, college students were genuinely enthusiastic about the Obama campaign, in part due to this progressive stance, and turned out to vote accordingly.
The Republican Party Needs to Look Back to the 1970s When the Party Platform Backed the Equal Rights Amendment
The Republican Party’s problems with the female vote started in the 1970s, when it abandoned the Equal Rights Amendment. Decades ago, the ERA was endorsed by the Party in its Platform. That was a party that could win elections. Now, however, the Republican Party has become known for opposing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Obama signed into law and lauded, and for working to repeal state equal pay acts. Did it occur to no one in the Party that working women were going to be disinclined to vote for a party that believes men should get paid more for the same work? Let’s call that what it is: stupid.
It is also another reminder of how out-of-touch the Republican men in power have become. Women who work are still doing a majority of the child-rearing and housekeeping. They are overburdened and race from work to child to home to do as much of it “all” as they humanly can. They work to support their families, not to earn “pin money.” To tell women in these circumstances that they should not be paid fully for their efforts at work is, again, for lack of a better word, stupid.
Republicans Must Loosen Their Death Grip on Minority, Extremist Religious Positions, or Choose to Lose
The Republican Party also needs to have a sit-down conversation with the pollsters who have done poll after poll showing that a large majority of Americans favor the use of contraception, and do not oppose abortion in all circumstances except the life of the mother. The Party, in recent years, has staked its future on more and more tightly embracing a set of social positions that only a minority of Americans share. While they are there, they need to look at the youth demographic on gay marriage. These extreme positions have been dictated by particular religious viewpoints that a majority of Americans do not endorse. If those in power in the Party are determined to continue to focus on these issues as the Party’s defining creed, then they should know that, by doing so, they are willfully handing the White House to the Democrats for terms to come.
This year’s Republican Party Platform, for example, embraced a breathtaking right of health care professionals to refuse to do anything that affects the worker’s religious beliefs, as I discussed in this column. In other words, if your pharmacist opposes contraception, the Republican Party platform held that he or she should not have to fill your prescription or sell you over-the-counter contraception. That is so far beyond the mainstream as to be laughable. What I use for contraception is none of my pharmacist’s business, period.
Here is a statistic that the men at the Republican Party’s top might want to scrutinize very carefully: Obama got 50% of the Catholic vote, while Republicans received only 48%. If Republicans believed they were courting the Catholic vote with their extreme positions on contraception and abortion, it did not work. Why not? Try this one on for size: a majority of Catholics disagree with their bishops on contraception. (See my suggestion above about sitting down with pollsters who will tell you where Americans stand, not what they think you want to hear.)
The Republican Party needs a major infusion of new viewpoints, and needs to listen to the youth of our country, members of minorities, the LGBT citizens, and the women who are so thoroughly turned off by the Party’s social positions, and who deserve real input on the Party’s social and economic positions. Then it needs to focus on the economic issues and government-accountability issues that it could claim at one time were its raison d’etre. That is, of course, assuming it wants to win the hearts and minds of a majority of Americans in the future.