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Why Romney’s Debate Win May Be a Loss among Female Voters

- October 8, 2012

This is a guest post from political scientist Corrine McConnaughy.


The marked gender gap in support for Obama and Romney is hard to miss.  A Pew Research poll in September found 56% of registered female voters favoring Obama and 37% favoring Romney — with no offsetting gap in Romney’s favor among male voters, who were evenly split 46% in favor of Obama and 47% in favor of Romney.  The gender gap may be even larger in some key swing states.  A Marquette University poll in Wisconsin found that likely women voters split 61%-36% in favor of Obama.  A Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll found a 60%-35% split among likely women voters in Ohio.  And Lynn Vavreck has recently reported that YouGov’s data show that over the course of the campaign, “Romney is disproportionately losing women to Obama” – with 62% of those who’ve switched their support from Romney to Obama being women.

In short, Romney doesn’t hold and, perhaps, is still losing more of, one of the demographics key to the winning Bush electoral coalition.  Can Romney win without undoing some of that gap?  It seems unlikely; McCain certainly didn’t.  The proven Republican strategy to win this vote target is “compassion politics”—or at least the appearance thereof.  And this brings us to the problem of Romney’s “win” in the debate: it came in an aggressive form, without much of a compassion issue agenda, and with some implicit cues that he is not particularly sensitive to disadvantaged Americans who are the targets of compassion policies.

As Barabara Norrander first suggested in the late 1990s, women have placed a greater premium on “compassion issues”—social welfare and civil rights—than have men over the last several decades.  This pattern helps to explain why (white) men have moved into the Republican Party at greater rates than women during this time: women have been unwilling to leave the party that is more closely associated with these issues.

But in the 2000 election, Vincent Hutchings, Nicholas Valentino, Tasha Philpot and Ismail White also showed that the Republican “compassion strategy” could help explain the movement of key women voters (the infamous soccer moms) into the Bush camp.  That year the Republicans showcased a “big tent,” featured African-American speakers at their convention, and sold the idea for No Child Left Behind with the argument that education was “the new civil right.”  Hutchings and his colleagues found that this strategy reduced the gender gap among those who watched the Republican National Convention.  In a subsequent set of experiments, they confirmed this effect: sending signals that Bush was compassionate made women just as likely to support Bush as Gore.

Romney’s debate performance did not suggest a similar strategy at work.  First, anecdotal evidence suggests his aggressive and forceful debating style may not have appealed to women.  ABC News reported that “a focus group of Walmart moms in Las Vegas… revealed… a broad sense that Romney was the victor. Even so, the women didn’t walk away seeing Romney in a very positive light… the women used words like ‘rude,’ ‘pushy’ and assertive’ — and when asked to clarify if assertive was positive or negative, the woman who offered that description said it was negative.” While those same women didn’t seem too impressed by Obama, either, he’s not the candidate that needed to win them over.

Second, in terms of issues, Romney only nodded toward compassion politics.  He mentioned education, but unlike Bush, he framed it not in compassion terms—that children have a right to a good education—but in competition terms: “Education is key, particularly [for] the future of our economy.”

Finally, several of Romney’s comments implicitly signaled a lack of compassion.  The first is perhaps not so implicit, as it has reached a fever-pitch in social media: Romney’s commitment to de-funding public television, even though he likes Big Bird. Firing Big Bird—a mainstay of early childhood educational programming—does not exactly telegraph compassion.  Romney also referred to economically disadvantaged Americans as “the poor”—until he caught himself late in the debate in a comment on the federal government’s role in education: “…the kids that are getting federal dollars from IDEA or Title I — these are disabled kids or — or — or poor kids or — or lower-income kids, rather….”  The correction was instructive.  The term “poor” is a stigmatizing rather than compassionate term.  It’s unlikely that many noticed Romney’s references to “the poor,” but that’s exactly why they may be so politically powerful.  Many studies have shown that the implicit messages of campaign communication can have the biggest impact, particularly when the messages are about minorities.

In the weeks following the video of Romney’s “47 percent” comments, media reports claimed that he was attempting to soften his image and display more empathy on the campaign trail.  He seemed to know a compassion strategy was essential.  But Romney’s debate performance, and the media coverage thereof, may have only given the women voters he needs more reason to dislike him.  Looking forward, the question is whether he can continue to put Obama on the defensive without seeming offensive to the swing voters Romney needs to win the race.