What Do Women Want?
In order to win, the Republican nominee will have to find out.


“Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.” — William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, III.i

President Barack Obama took 57 percent of the women’s vote in the 2008 presidential election (men split their vote 50–50 between Obama and John McCain). But can Obama win the women’s vote again? For clues to how women are likely to vote in the 2012 presidential election — and why some candidates are resonating more than others — we turned to a new technique now being used by some marketing companies.

First, we should put the polls in context. Obama’s campaign team knows he needs a clear majority among women again in 2012 to win, but Gallup reported that as of March 19–25 Obama’s approval rating among women was just 49 percent. He’ll need a much higher percentage than that to win; after all, according to Gallup’s statistics, in the 2004 presidential election 52 percent of women voted for John Kerry, and in the 2000 election 53 percent of women voted for Al Gore, but both lost to their Republican rival, George W. Bush.

So, if we use the last three presidential contests as indicators, Obama would seem to need over 53 percent of the women’s vote to win. True, he might win with less, depending on voter turnout. According to Census Bureau figures, in the 2010 midterm elections 42.7 percent of eligible women voters cast ballots, whereas just 40.9 percent of eligible men voted. Also, historically, a higher percentage of unmarried women vote for Democrats than of married women, and the number of unmarried women has now surpassed the number of married women — as of August 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 51.1 percent of women 18 years of age and older were not married. Democrats like this shift in demographics.

According to the Voter Participation Center (VPC), a Democratic-leaning nonprofit, 61 percent of unmarried women who voted in 2010 cast ballots for Democrats. And a lot of unmarried women haven’t been voting, says the VPC. For example, although unmarried women made up 25.2 percent of the overall population eligible to vote in the 2010 midterm elections, they made up only 23.6 percent of actual voters that year.

So winning the women’s vote is essential; however, understanding how to win it is difficult for campaign staffers, who often seem to shrug their shoulders just as Sigmund Freud, the man who invented psychoanalysis, did when he opined, “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’”

A method of analysis that Freud would have appreciated, called “laddering,” gave us some surprising answers as to why women are moving toward one GOP candidate or another. Laddering uses in-depth interviews to prompt key insights into an individual’s reason for liking a product or, in this case, a candidate. This method — picture a patient on a psychoanalyst’s couch — captures a mental map of the brain’s connections to a product (or candidate), and for this reason is becoming the preferred method of research for savvy marketers. By doing in-depth interviews with women who support particular Republican candidates for president, we found more substantive answers than polls or focus groups are providing. (In fact, men take note: The insights might just translate to what women want in a broader sense.)

Amy, who is 31 years old and single, supports Newt Gingrich for president. She says, “Newt’s the only one who’s a fighter, and who gets what the battle’s about.” She added, “I’m tired of buying into the candidates I’m told to support. I am trusting myself on this one, not the GOP’s pick.”

The basis for her support included her opinion that “Newt has a strong core.” When asked to follow up on this point, she said, “He’ll withstand opposition.” And then she said, “His strong core makes me feel secure.” She also explained that “he doesn’t care what others think.” She says she’s looking for a person strong enough to fix what she sees as a fiscal crisis and a loss of confidence in America.