Both political parties agree: Getting the women’s vote is key in 2012 campaign

Kristin Richter, a senior nursing major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, discusses politics with women on campus Sunday.

Story by Kayla Stauffer, NewsNetNebraska

When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, women have the majority vote.

They’ve outnumbered men at the polls for the past 48 years, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

And in recent years, they’ve leaned Democratic. According to Nebraska-based Gallup polling company, the women’s vote hasn’t gone to a Republican candidate since George H.W. Bush won the election in 1988 – a statistic both President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney appear to be aware of.

Graph comparing the percent of men that vote versus the percent of women that vote in presidential elections.

Throughout their campaigns, both candidates have targeted women, though experts say their approaches have differed.“The Republican Party knows there is a problem,” said Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “And it has taken steps to try to decrease the gap in women’s support for their party in this election.”Those steps have included playing up the impact that the economic downturn has had on women, she said, and emphasizing Republicans’ stance on social issues.

The Republican Strategy

August’s Republican National Convention was used to do both of these things, Theiss-Morse said. By inviting women like Ann Romney to speak on the party’s behalf, Theiss-Morse said Republicans tried to widen their appeal. They also tried to demonstrate their support for and by women. “But they [Republicans] have to face the facts,” Theiss-Morse said. “Many women tend to be poorer, in charge of caring for their children and working at lower paying jobs. The Democrats simply have an easier task given their appeal to women over the years.”

Which is why Theiss-Morse believes Obama will receive the women’s vote in November. “The gender gap has been around for a while, and I don’t see anything in Mitt Romney’s campaign that will turn that around,” she said.

Jordan McGrain, Executive Director of the Nebraska Republican Party, disagrees. He said with five and a half weeks left in the campaign, the election is a toss-up. “I think we have to assume the message is working,” McGrain said. “Women are concerned with the prices of gas and groceries and they’re seeing how that affects their families. Women are looking at their pocketbooks and responding to it.”

While the Republican Party is strategizing ways to win over the women’s vote, Madeline Clauff, a sophomore broadcasting major at UNL and Greek house chair for the GOP, said she doesn’t think it will be enough to reverse the existing trend. “I think the Democrats are killing the Republicans in this,” she said. “So many women are poor and are attracted to the financial safety net that the Democrats offer. Free things like birth control, childcare and food stamps appeal to them.”

Madeline Clauff leads a political discussion with female UNL students on campus Sunday.

Clauff said she will vote for Romney in November, but believes the majority of women will not.

Mary Herres, chair of the Nebraska Women’s Democratic Caucus, believes the Democratic Party has been more effective at getting the women’s vote. “It always has been,” Herres said, “and always will be.”

The Democratic Strategy

The party’s stance on reproductive rights and birth control are particularly appealing to women, Herres said, and are at the center of this year’s Democratic campaign.  “Everything having to do with us [women] has become an issue-based power trip,” she said, “and women are responding.”

Herres said she expects more women to vote Democratic than did four years ago.

In 2008, 55 percent of women voted for Obama and 43 percent voted for McCain, she said. Herres forecasts the gap to be even wider in November.  “The issues weren’t as blatant before,” Herres explained. “We didn’t have candidates coming out and saying that rape was acceptable or the uber-conservative Republican block trying to defund the Violence Against Women Act. Everything having to do with us [women] has become an issue-based power trip, and women are responding.”

McGrain sees the situation differently. “They’re saying the only thing women care about are abortions or access to free birth control,” he said of the Democrats,“but the women I’ve encountered in my life want more than that. They want the economy to get better. They want food to be on the table.”

Which is why McGrain believes the Republican Party’s appeal to women is working.  It differs from the Democrats’ approach, he said, but it’s showing women that the Republican Party is the best place for change.

With three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate left in the campaign, political scientist Theiss-Morse said some Republicans are approaching the issue not as a ‘Republican Party’s problem with women’ but as a ‘Democratic Party’s problem with men.’

The GOP’s strategy is to put the problem back onto the Democratic Party, she said, which allows the Republicans to pose the question: Why aren’t Democrats appealing to men?

While the women’s vote is crucial, McGrain said, it also can’t be the only thing candidates focus on throughout the election. “You can’t just focus on one demographic,” he said. “You talk about your vision for the country and focus on it state by state, vote by vote. Then you hope people respond to it.”

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