When Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee, he was also promoted to commanding general in the alleged “war on women.”
Democrats are nattering on about this phony war in a blatant bid to cement their advantage among women, particularly the college-educated women that are a key Democratic constituency. It is base politics in every sense, a lurid, bottom-of-the-barrel catchphrase meant to frighten and energize an indispensable part of the Democratic coalition.
The consensus is that it’s working, with polls showing President Barack Obama leading Romney by double digits among women. Romney is certainly acting as if he thinks it’s working — doing defensive events with women, brandishing his winsome wife, Ann, as a shield from attack, and jumping all over a condescending statement by Democratic operative Hilary Rosen about how Ann, as a stay-at-home mom, “never worked a day in her life.”
All this may be shrewd tactical politics, but Romney shouldn’t mistake it for the main event. The election won’t be won or lost on the “war on women,” nor will Romney ever eliminate his “gender gap” — the differential in his support between men and women. If Romney wins the argument over the economy, he wins the election. Everything else is a detail.
Much is being made of Romney’s gaping gender gap, yet the gender gap is one of the most persistent features of our politics. Women always support Democrats more than men do. Barack Obama won 56 percent of women and 49 percent of men, for a seven-point difference, while winning in 2008. John Kerry won 51 percent of women and 44 percent of men, for a seven-point difference, while losing in 2004.
Those figures show how the gender gap swings both ways, but there aren’t many stories being written about how President Obama is underperforming among men. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll (that skews heavily Democratic), he leads Romney by seven points overall and by 19 points among women, but trails by eight points among men. Yet there are no intense cable-TV debates about what the president has done to alienate men and what he can do to speak their language and win them over.
Commentary about the gender gap usually lacks any sense of the divisions within the women’s vote: It’s all just one big, undifferentiated sisterhood. But in a Pew survey that showed Romney losing women by 20 points, the Republican was tied among white women and losing nonwhite women by 72 points. He was winning white women without a college degree by ten points and losing those with a degree by 17 points. Word that there’s a raging “war on women” must not be reaching broad swaths of women, who seem woefully unaware that they are the target of well-publicized hostilities.
A USA Today/Gallup poll of swing-state voters found that the top issues for women are health care, gas prices, unemployment, the debt, international issues, and — coming in sixth — government policies on birth control. Men also ranked birth-control policies sixth in importance. Women aren’t foolish enough to think that free contraception is as important as the cost and availability of health care, or the price at the pump, or whether they and their loved ones can get jobs. In the Pew survey, women are basically evenly split over whether religious institutions should get an exemption from the contraception mandate, with 42 percent favoring an exemption and 48 percent opposing one.
Romney is right when he says that what women really care about is the economy. But he shouldn’t get drawn into debating on the terms of an Obama reelection campaign desperate to play demographic small ball and elevate distractions over the big issues: an unaffordable and dubiously constitutional health-care law, an 8.2 percent unemployment rate, a $14 trillion debt. In this case, the high road is the best road. If Romney’s vision for the country’s future is compelling enough, the women’s vote will take care of itself.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected] © 2012 by King Features Syndicate