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The GOP’s Woman Problem
Melissa Deckman, Ph.D.,

Over the past three decades, women voters have trended heavily toward Democratic candidates in national elections.  However, Republicans made history—and won back the House of Representatives—in the 2010 congressional midterms by effectively eliminating the gender gap:  49 percent of women voted for Democratic candidates, while 48 percent of women voted for Republican candidates.  The 2010 midterm election also brought a record number of GOP women to Congress and to governorships. Combine these events with the visible leadership role that women are playing in the Tea Party movement, and one might ask: is the GOP becoming more competitive with women? Is there a gender partisan realignment in the making?

Not so fast.  The strong gains Republican candidates made among women voters were largely isolated to white women voters: 58 percent voted for Republican congressional candidates that year compared with 50 percent who voted for GOP candidates in 2006.  Recent polls show a substantial advantage for Obama among women voters, leading some experts to predict that a historic gender gap is in the making in 2012. For example, PRRI’s recent survey, conducted in August, shows that Obama held a significant lead over Romney among all women voters, 49 to 34 percent.  Not surprisingly, his lead was greatest among women of color, but Obama also polled better than Romney among white college-educated women (47 percent vs. 38 percent). Even among white working-class women, Obama held his own: 41 percent of these women expressed their preference for Obama, which is the same percentage supported Romney. White working class men preferred Romney over Obama by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

The evident gender gap among white working-class Americans is particularly notable because of the historical importance of this group for Republican presidential candidates. Since Reagan’s election in 1980, the white working class has made up a disproportionate share of the Republican party’s voter base. And their support has been crucial, particularly in swing states like Ohio. But as PRRI’s Juhem Navarro-Rivera documents, the white working class’s share of the electorate is shrinking rapidly. A noticeable switch by white working- class women voters to the Democrats could complicate matters for the GOP as other demographic groups that trend Democratic, such as Latinos, become a larger part of the electorate.

How could Romney still minimize the gender gap this election?  He needs to find a message that appeals to women voters, who, like men, overwhelmingly say that the economy trumps all other issues this election season. The Romney campaign is currently running an ad, “Dear Daughter,” that responds to women voters’ anxieties about their children’s economic future, as well as the high levels of unemployment and poverty women have faced under Obama’s watch. But since August, Obama’s ads seem to have been drawing in more white working-class women, at least according to the National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein. Barring substantial shifts between now and November—always possible but increasingly unlikely—Romney is likely to face a significant deficit with women voters.