Politics & Policy

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.

Amy said that another reason she supports Gingrich is that “he’s smart.” This led her to say, “He’ll expose the other side,” and “I feel validated” when he articulates the positions she feels strongly about.

Her last reason was that Gingrich has a “twinkle in his eyes.” Okay, this is something few men would be likely to say. But her point is clear: She likes Gingrich’s confident, almost swashbuckling bravado. She is looking for a brave candidate who won’t wilt in a debate or compromise his (and her) core beliefs in a game of give-and-take politics.

Taken together, these elements of Amy’s mental map reveal her propensity for jumping into the fray and a desire for a candidate who will take her along with him. Her desire to support a candidate who’s a fighter — and who has more than an ounce of charm — reveals not only why Gingrich is her pick, but also how he has managed to woo some females to his side. As Amy looks at the country’s future with a bit of fear, her values lead her to a desire for a candidate who is tough, innovative, and prepared to fight.


Laura, who is 40 years old and married, took her time picking a GOP candidate. She finally settled on Ron Paul. She said, “I’ve seen promises made, and not kept. I think there are truths in the world that are not flexible, honesty being one of them.” She finds Paul, above all things, to be consistently honest.

In fact, she says she likes the fact that Paul is “consistent across all his views.” When asked why she feels this way, she said, “He’s less susceptible to special interests.” This, she said, makes her feel that she can “rely on him.” She thinks that his positions are not just empty rhetoric; as a result, she can “connect with him.”

Her last foundational point was that Paul “keeps his promises.” She says he follows through and is straightforward about what he really thinks, and that he “injects meaning into my whole life.” As a result of his honesty, she says, “I feel devoted to him.”

Laura sought out a candidate whose character and consistency allowed her to connect with him in a way that gave her security and reassured her she could trust him. She represents the segment of Republican women who are unsure whether they can rely on Republicans to govern as they campaign.


Carolyn, who is 30 and single, pointed out something few men would ever notice: “When he holds those babies, the first thing he does is turn to his wife, and there’s something about that.”

Carolyn started off by saying she liked Romney’s “business background.” She explained, “When you know that your candidate has that pride in America and the American system, it gives me faith, and I feel protected.”

She next said she likes Romney’s integrity. “I’m overtly emotionally involved,” she said, “and he makes me feel like I have someone who’s on my side.” She added that his integrity “brings people together.”

Looks, for Carolyn, are not irrelevant. She said, “He has all his hair.” But she also loves the fact that he’s still married to a woman he met in high school. She said, “He really seems to support his wife.” When asked to explain this point, she said, “He’s a family man . . . I feel like he’s on my side.” Carolyn represents the segment of women who seek the security that a seasoned businessman with a solid family behind him provides. Romney ultimately makes her feel protected, optimistic, and secure — especially about our country’s fiscal position.

As Romney is the frontrunner, we asked a woman who now supports him, but only after she finally “compromised” by settling on him, to explain why. Yasmin, who is 40 years old and married, is like a lot of conservatives in that she has had a difficult time deciding which candidate to back. She finally chose Romney because “for all his faults there’s a silver lining.” When asked to explain, she said, “I didn’t get the candidates I wanted, but I’ll make the best of it. Romney will get it done. He’s never going to be the most fun guy at the party, but he’ll get me home.”

Yasmin then said, “The world is so on fire right now, I’m looking for someone solid, consistent; someone I can look to for stability.” She added, “At this stage in my life I need a rock, and Romney makes me feel comforted.”

Finally, Yasmin added, “I don’t think Romney ever punched his hand through a wall when he got angry.” Yasmin made the choice that many other women are facing: Predictable and boring are not all bad when life is, as Yasmin put it, “going wrong all around me.”


Katie, who is 36 and single, said, “Does it bother me that Santorum’s not going to win? Probably not.” When asked to explain, she said, “The others just don’t do anything to excite me.” As we dug into her reasoning, Katie said, “He’s a fighter. He’s persistent. He gives me motivation.”

Katie also likes the fact that Santorum is a “family man.” She said this “grounds him,” and she added, “I’m facing the same challenge, and he inspires me to do more.”

However, what she really liked was Santorum’s record “of reform.” She thinks he’ll reduce the “abuse of entitlements” and “make the system fairer.” She thinks he has an “unruffled” personality that will be “better with the public.”

The important takeaway from Katie’s selection of Santorum is that his tenacity and persistence provide her with inspiration. Through supporting him, she and others like her are asking their candidate to light a spark within them to “do more,” as Katie put it.


According to Gallup, in a poll taken March 12–18, Republican women nationally are torn among the four candidates — Romney has the support of 37 percent, Santorum of 30 percent, Gingrich of 11 percent, and Paul of 6 percent. The women interviewed for this article certainly were split. The candidate who wins the GOP nomination will have to find a way to bring these groups together. To do this, he will need to make them all feel that their values have been met in some way, from security and persistence to inspiration and someone on their side.

The women interviewed have strong views about the GOP candidates they’re not supporting. For example, Carolyn said, “Santorum just reminds me of some kid who would tell on me in high school. Romney’s the hard worker, who would somehow pull off valedictorian without you ever knowing.”

In sum, they all came to their decisions with perspectives the all-male field now vying for the presidency needs to understand. After all, women might be the least decided voters at present and the most important demographic in the 2012 presidential election. And none of the GOP candidates seems to have figured out how to present himself and his policies in a way that a majority of women can relate to. For example, in the week of March 17 the Economist/YouGov poll found that Obama led Romney among women by 17 points (55 percent to 38 percent). And the poll showed the other GOP candidates as being even worse off. Among women, Santorum had a 30 percent favorable rating, and Gingrich only a 22 percent favorable rating.

The Republican candidates seem to be responding by trying to keep women focused on the economy. For this to work for Romney, the party’s frontrunner, he will have to find a way for women to “feel secure” that he can manage the economy, reducing the unemployment rate, among other things. If he is to accomplish this, his wife will have to help. She is a likable speaker and a seasoned campaigner.

Our interviews certainly made it clear that Romney has not yet presented himself in a way that makes most women relate to him. But as he seeks to reach women, he would do well not to demand devotion but to woo the less-than-enthusiastic Yasmins out there. Romney — and the rest — might be well served by poring over the other women’s values.

Democrats, meanwhile, know Obama must win the women’s vote by a sizable margin to secure a second term. He beat McCain in the national women’s vote by 14 points. But in 2010, when Republicans seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats on average won only 49 percent of the women’s vote. This was the first time in decades the Democrats didn’t carry the women’s vote in a national election. If this happens again, they won’t have a chance.

So whoever goes up against Obama will have to find a way to humanize himself and his policies in a way women can connect with. The optimistic spin is: Women haven’t made up their minds yet.

Anne Sorock is the founder of The Frontier Lab, a marketing nonprofit. Frank Miniter is the author of The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide and other books.



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