Politics & Policy

What Do Women Want?

Bob McDonnell knows.

Everything you need to know about sex and politics begins with reading the results of the Virginia gubernatorial race.

As any Washington Post reader knows, Governor-elect Bob McDonnell wrote in a 1989 thesis that “every level of government should statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators.” When the Post reported on his thesis — which was leaked by the McDonnell campaign, as it happens — the Republican distanced himself from the wording but didn’t disown it, and ran commercials highlighting some of the important women in his life — including his military daughter — who support him. And he moved on. He asked voters to judge him on his 2009 campaign proposals, “not on a decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era and haven’t thought about in years.”

And now he’s won the race for governor of Virginia. Unfortunately, the Washington Post isn’t poised to learn from the experience or even simply report the news. The paper is too busy still campaigning against him. In a post-election piece, it quotes the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato:

Sabato also predicted that McDonnell “will avoid social issues like the plague” because of his controversial graduate-school thesis, in which he criticized working women, single mothers, and homosexuals. After the thesis was widely publicized, he spent several weeks during the campaign defending himself against accusations that he is a right-winger.

The Washington Post had tried to kill his candidacy on the grounds that he was a sexist Neanderthal, but it backfired — because women aren’t a monolithic voting bloc. They care about many real issues, not just the manufactured panderings known as “women’s issues.”

The preemptive spin yesterday on MSNBC was that Democrat Creigh Deeds was too negative, and that this rubbed voters the wrong way. No, Creigh Deeds and his allies thought that they could pander to women with “women’s issues” and defeat McDonnell. But they were told otherwise by voters, who have worries other than those of women’s-studies curricula planners and abortion ideologues. USA Today gets this much right: “The Republican fought back by emphasizing his efforts to promote and support working women and his commitment to state economic issues, such as unclogging Virginia’s highways.”

It’s not so much that McDonnell ran away from social issues — he is who he is: a socially conservative Catholic who went to an evangelical graduate school (Pat Robertson’s at that!) — as that he was able to overcome the media caricature of his views and give a full picture of what he could offer Virginians as their governor.

In the end, McDonnell wound up with a slight lead with women. That’s after the Washington Post ran, earlier in the fall, such headlines as “McDonnell Tries to Salvage Women’s Votes.”

Well, the governor-elect did.

Contrast that with the case of George Allen. The former Virginia governor, when running for re-election as senator, lost. He lost, yes, after the famous “macaca” YouTube incident. He lost, yes, after the Washington Post waged a campaign against him, too. He lost after reminding retired military men, among others, why they always had a soft spot for his opponent, former Reagan-administration official Jim Webb. Webb had written things like: “I have never met a woman . . . whom I would trust to provide [soldiers] with combat leadership.” He was a critic of sexual integration at the U.S. Naval Academy, women in combat, and post-Tailhook “witch hunts.” And Allen, in a play for women’s votes, ran commercials and issued press releases with such titles as “Webb’s Disrespectful Comments Toward Women Criticized.” Allen wound up alienating some men, in his attempts to caricature Webb as a sexist Neanderthal (sound familiar?).

Allen fell into a frequent Democratic trap. Kate O’Beirne explained this sex-pander trap in her 2006 book, Women Who Make the World Worse:

Republicans have been made to believe that they have intractable woman problems, but GOP candidates have been able to bridge a gender divide that remains a treacherous gulf for the Democrats. The Democratic party has been hurt as a result of its feminization at the clenched fists of the feminists in its base.

The Democrats actually have a “White Male Problem,” something former Bill Clinton aide William Galston has pointed out. Women can be fickle — a majority of them went for Reagan twice, and for Bush in ’88 but not in ’92. The Democrats have consistently pushed white men away. Al Gore got 36 percent of their vote in 2000; John Kerry got 37 percent in ’04. “Democrats’ problem with men is far bigger than Republicans’ women problem,” O’Beirne explained.

Women have refused to conform to liberals’ stereotype of them. A pre-9/11 poll by the New York Times found that women were more concerned with missile defense and foreign policy than with abortion and gun control. Voters on Tuesday indicated that the economy and jobs were their top concerns, and McDonnell topped Deeds on both issues by a margin 57 percent to 43 percent. The Washington Post had to report that: “More than 6 in 10 voters said in exit polls Tuesday that the master’s thesis had no effect on their vote. The polls showed that Mr. McDonnell had strong support among men and was also backed by most women.” Indeed, women, who made up 52 percent of the electorate, went for McDonnell by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. “Economy/jobs was their biggest issue,” McDonnell pollster Glen Bolger tells NRO. Just like the Virginia electorate as a whole. McDonnell won with women, Bolger says, because his campaign targeted them on that issue; meanwhile, there were “some very credible women” backing him up, which didn’t hurt.

It’s not brain surgery. But politicians are too frequently seduced by the temptation to insult the intelligence and sensibilities of a significant portion of the electorate. McDonnell resisted that temptation and came out on top.

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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