Conservative Women and the GOP Gender Gap

When powerful Republican women get together, they sometimes sound suspiciously like feminists.

"Outsiders portray conservative women as an anomaly, but we've been running things behind the scenes for years while the men are out there talking about them," said Barbara Comstock, a political strategist for Mitt Romney. She was once an intern for Ted Kennedy. Before she "saw the light," that is.

Katie Levinson, a senior communications adviser to Rudy Giuliani, admitted Democrats have been historically better at integrating women's leadership into campaign machines. Female Republican volunteers are now saying, "I don't want to just be on your women's coalition, I have a lot to contribute," Levinson shared, reflecting that she feels lucky to be a woman in politics now, as opposed to in past eras.

Fred Thompson's deputy communications director, Karen Hanretty, intoned, "I have yet to meet a woman who wants the federal government to step in and say here's how you're going to get your health care." (Except when it comes to reproductive health care, of course. Then women should be extra grateful for government interference!)

The occasion for these expressions of GOP-brand feminism -- er, this conversation among conservative women -- was the National Review's "The Right Guy" panel yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The idea was to gather important women working for the leading Republican presidential candidates to explain why "their guys" would be better choices for female voters in 2008 than Hillary Clinton.

National Review Washington Editor Kate O'Beirne moderated, and began with some statistics demonstrating the uphill battle conservatives face in wooing women. In 2000 and 2004, Al Gore and John Kerry won the female vote by 54 and 51 percent respectively. And in 2008, the Democratic advantage among women could deepen: In addition to the possible appeal of electing the nation's first female president, women are more likely than men to express displeasure with the current administration. Sixty-two percent now believe the Iraq war was "a mistake," compared to 52 percent of men.

Married white women are an especially key swing demographic. They used to be dependably Republican, supporting President Bush by 11 points in 2004. But in the 2006 midterm elections, they were only 2 percentage points more likely to vote Republican than Democratic, reflecting frustration with the war and worries about economic instability. Hillary Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, predicts that his candidate can cherry pick 24 percent of these Republican women voters with an "emotional appeal" to female solidarity.

In the face of this rather bleak electoral outlook, it's no surprise that the panelists seemed more concerned with one particular woman -- Hillary Clinton -- than with the hypothetical American woman voter. While agreeing that Clinton would usher in a decadent age of "socialized medicine" and "over 50 percent" tax rates, they were also united in calling her a formidable candidate -- someone who Levinson termed "an extremely intelligent woman who should answer questions on a policy level," not by resorting to girl-power platitudes.

Despite reports to the contrary, Clinton has never done that. Her campaign came under fire from both the left and right last week after Penn told reporters on a conference call that he was "detecting some backlash" from female voters after the last Democratic debate. What women saw, Penn interpreted, was "this six-on-one to try to bring her down." This was at odds with Clinton's own reading of the aggression against her. She commented, "I don't think they're piling on because I'm a woman. I think they're piling on because I'm winning."

Surprisingly, as the Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta noted, the GOP women were somewhat sympathetic to Clinton after the flap. "If Mark Penn had been a woman, he wouldn't have said that," Hanretty said, guessing that Clinton didn't approve of Penn's rhetoric. The others agreed.

But that's where the sympathy ended. If Clinton is running in part on her husband's legacy from the 1990s, it was clear yesterday that Republican campaigns are planning to remind voters how that decade differs from a post-9-11 "time of war." The Romney campaign's Comstock said that because of the threat of Islamic terrorism, it would be disastrous to return to what Norman Podhoretz termed the "holiday from history" of the Bill Clinton years, during which "the military was depleted."

Likewise, much of the rhetoric at the event was aimed squarely at the "security mom" bloc, an odd choice considering that unlike in 2004, today's white, suburban mothers are largely antiwar. That didn't seem to bother John McCain's deputy communications advisor, Jill Hazelbaker, who said, "I am proud to work for a candidate who says he would rather lose the campaign than lose the war."

Giuliani's representative, Levinson, sounded just like her boss. "Who is likely to be the best commander-in-chief to take the war to the terrorists? We need to stay on offense," she argued. Hanretty promised that Thompson would "explain" to female voters that America is facing "an enemy who would take rights away from women, who would take rights away from homosexuals." Never mind that the GOP has done far more than "the terrorists" to deny Americans reproductive freedom and marriage equality.

There's little evidence American women will buy into saber-rattling rationales for continuing the Iraq war or exporting neo-conservative foreign policy elsewhere in the Middle East. But one thing the Republican campaign staffers were right to point out is that traditional "women's issues" such as reproductive rights, education, and health care are no greater a concern for female voters than for their male counterparts. Like men, women rank terrorism, Iraq, and the economy as the biggest challenges facing the nation.

Although women appear to be more in line with Democrats than Republicans on these key issues a year before the election, a lot can change. Historically, women have been late-deciding voters who are more likely than men to say that a candidate's personality swayed them. To what extent women voters will consider a presidential candidate's gender itself as a factor can't be predicted until after Election Day 2008; polls are infamously inaccurate when it comes to measuring the electorate's true feelings about gender and race.

What's already clear is that women's disgruntlement with conservative foreign and economic policy reflects that of the rest of the electorate, but is even stronger. That makes it difficult to imagine the Republican Party closing the gender gap any time soon, regardless of whose special guy wins the GOP nomination.

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