How Do We Know the “War on Women” Rhetoric Isn’t Working?

Over at Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown suggests that Democrats’ efforts to woo female voters by scaring them about Republicans’ stances on reproduction just doesn’t appear to be working that well this year. This is distinguished from 2012, when Obama secured reelection with the strong help of female voters, and 2010, when a few Democrats (like Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado) survived the Republican wave by depicting their opponents as waging a war on women. Why the failure of the strategy this year?

As many political strategists, writers, and pundits have noted over the past few weeks, issues like birth control and abortion simply rank low among the list of current concerns for female voters. This likely isn’t an expression of how important women consider their availability—the vast majority of American women will use birth control in their lifetimes and one in three will have an abortion—but the fact that they genuinely aren’t pressing political matters right now at Congressional level.

On NPR this morning, Mara Liasson had some odd comments on this topic:

In many races, Democrats are still leading with women, but their edge is much, much smaller than it was during the 2012 elections. And the polls look like – a lot like 2010, when the gender gap essentially disappeared and the women’s vote split 49 to 49 percent.

A few responses. First, birth control and abortion are basically never at the top of the list of Americans’ biggest concerns. Americans are far more focused on the economy and health care and almost always are. Campaigns may nonetheless choose to focus on reproduction precisely because it’s a wedge issue: there are moderate to conservative women who will probably vote Republican but are also pro-choice and just might vote Democratic if they are concerned enough about that issue. In a close race, activating reproduction as a campaign issue just might be enough to swing the election from one side to the other. That was as true in 2012 as it is now.

Second, there may well be some campaign strategists who have some evidence from focus groups or detailed multi-wave surveys suggesting that Democratic war-on-women ads actually move people’s votes. (If so, please let me know.) But it remains far from obvious that this advertising was ever incredibly powerful. Remember, just based on the economy, Obama did just about about as well in 2012 as he should have; adding in the advertising rhetorical strategy doesn’t really provide much more explanatory power.

But let’s say that advertising was effective in 2012. Do we have any evidence it’s not performing as well this year? Yes, Democratic Senators running in moderate and conservative states are facing tough elections and many will lose. But that’s because it’s a midterm election with a moderately unpopular Democrat in the White House; advertising can’t change that.

One of the races frequently singled out for the failure of the war-on-women strategy is the Colorado Senate race, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall (or “Mark Uterus,” as some have taken to calling him) is running a few points behind Republican Cory Gardner despite a blistering series of ads portraying Gardner as trying to destroy all forms of contraception ever. Yet Udall is running at almost the exact same position in the polls as Sen. Michael Bennet (D) was at this point in 2010. Bennet’s come-from-behind victory was attributed by some to his aggressive war-on-women rhetoric, portraying his opponent Ken Buck as a retrograde sexist. Indeed, the gender gap in that particular race was an impressive 16 points. So if both Democrats were trailing by two points right before the election, and both were employing the war-on-women strategy, why was it deemed successful in one case and a failure in the other?

As to Liasson’s point, I’m not sure where she’s getting her data. There was a seven-point gender gap in 2010; 48% of women voted Democratic while 41% of men did. This is entirely consistent with recent gender gaps in national elections — seven points in 2008, ten points in 2012 — and indeed with much of the last few decades. I haven’t looked at all the recent polls, but a recent one in Colorado shows an 11-point gender gap in the Senate race there.

Given the geography of this year’s election, it was always going to be a tough one for the Democrats. But it’s not clear whether focusing on abortion and birth control this year has made their task harder or easier, or whether it’s done anything at all.

Update: Via Twitter, Jonathan Robinson forwarded me this Greenburg-Quinlan-Rosner controlled study showing that a series of NARAL mailers in 2012 actually reduced positive feelings toward Mitt Romney, particularly among more conservative voters and those more predisposed to like him. So that’s interesting! I’m not sure whether that translated into vote choice, but it’s still evidence that war-on-women language has some sort of effect.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.