When former Senator Rick Santorum dropped out of the Republican nomination contest earlier this week, the race for the presidency took a sharp turn toward the general election.
For presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, this requires a sharp turn of his own: away from the right-wing base and toward the up-for-grabs centre.
That pivot requires tackling an artefact of the primary season, the Republican “war on women.” In the battle for the base, candidates pledged to limit contraception coverage in health insurance and defund Planned Parenthood.
They could take these stands because the constituency most dialled into the issues - single women under 50 - rarely participate in the GOP primaries. But come November, single women will make up 26% of the electorate. And since the contraceptive debate began, they’ve flocked to President Obama and the Democrats. Recent polls show women now favour Obama over Romney by a staggering 19 points (57% to 38%).
To win in November, Romney and the GOP must shift from a “war on women” to a battle for their votes. But how do they do that, given the damage done to the Republican brand?
First, they have to stop the bleeding. A narrative is in place: Republicans don’t care about women. Every time a politician reinforces that narrative, it becomes more difficult to overturn. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker repealed the state’s equal pay law last week, he provided such reinforcement. Worse, he helped tie the “war on women” to the economy and jobs, the central issue in the coming election.
The problem isn’t policy but message. Republicans initially framed the contraception policy as an attack on religious liberty, and the equal pay law as a burden on businesses. But not every Republican stayed on point. A major Santorum supporter up-ended the religious liberty debate by suggesting the only contraceptive pill “gals” need is aspirin - to clasp between their knees.
Likewise, a Wisconsin lawmaker weighing in on the equal pay law defended its repeal this way: “You could argue money is more important for men.” You could argue that, but it won’t win over the 40% of families in which women are the primary breadwinners. To combat the “war on women” narrative, the GOP has to make message discipline a priority.
The second step for Republicans: connect to their history as the party of women’s rights. Columnist Frank Rich recently dismissed the GOP as “the Stag Party” because it has so alienated women voters.
Yet the party used to house the foremost defenders of women’s equality. Republicans led the fight for woman suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment. Party leaders like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush vocally supported reproductive rights and organisations like Planned Parenthood. Those specific issues aren’t on the table for today’s socially-conservative GOP. But Republicans need to make the case that the values underlying these past policies - support for women’s choices and equality before the law - shape the party’s current agenda.
Finally, Mitt Romney needs to find a way to speak directly to women. His wife Ann is a tremendous asset: sharp, well-spoken, likeable. But a candidate can’t outsource the concerns of 52% of the nation to his spouse.
He needs to explain - himself - how his policies will help the vulnerable, keep families safe, and dial back the militarism of the past decade. These concerns weigh more heavily with women voters. Romney must make it clear they matter to him as well.
It is unlikely the gender gap between the parties will disappear any time soon. Women have been more likely than men to vote Democratic for three decades now.
But by actively combating its image as a party of men legislating for men, the GOP can narrow the gap and improve their chance for victory November.