Why Romney’s Debate Win May Be a Loss among Female Voters

This is a guest post from political scientist Corrine McConnaughy.


The marked gender gap in support for Obama and Romney is hard to miss.  A Pew Research poll in September found 56% of registered female voters favoring Obama and 37% favoring Romney—with no offsetting gap in Romney’s favor among male voters, who were evenly split 46% in favor of Obama and 47% in favor of Romney.  The gender gap may be even larger in some key swing states.  A Marquette University poll in Wisconsin found that likely women voters split 61%-36% in favor of Obama.  A Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll found a 60%-35% split among likely women voters in Ohio.  And Lynn Vavreck has recently reported that YouGov’s data show that over the course of the campaign, “Romney is disproportionately losing women to Obama” – with 62% of those who’ve switched their support from Romney to Obama being women.

In short, Romney doesn’t hold and, perhaps, is still losing more of, one of the demographics key to the winning Bush electoral coalition.  Can Romney win without undoing some of that gap?  It seems unlikely; McCain certainly didn’t.  The proven Republican strategy to win this vote target is “compassion politics”—or at least the appearance thereof.  And this brings us to the problem of Romney’s “win” in the debate: it came in an aggressive form, without much of a compassion issue agenda, and with some implicit cues that he is not particularly sensitive to disadvantaged Americans who are the targets of compassion policies.

As Barabara Norrander first suggested in the late 1990s, women have placed a greater premium on “compassion issues”—social welfare and civil rights—than have men over the last several decades.  This pattern helps to explain why (white) men have moved into the Republican Party at greater rates than women during this time: women have been unwilling to leave the party that is more closely associated with these issues.

But in the 2000 election, Vincent Hutchings, Nicholas Valentino, Tasha Philpot and Ismail White also showed that the Republican “compassion strategy” could help explain the movement of key women voters (the infamous soccer moms) into the Bush camp.  That year the Republicans showcased a “big tent,” featured African-American speakers at their convention, and sold the idea for No Child Left Behind with the argument that education was “the new civil right.”  Hutchings and his colleagues found that this strategy reduced the gender gap among those who watched the Republican National Convention.  In a subsequent set of experiments, they confirmed this effect: sending signals that Bush was compassionate made women just as likely to support Bush as Gore.

Romney’s debate performance did not suggest a similar strategy at work.  First, anecdotal evidence suggests his aggressive and forceful debating style may not have appealed to women.  ABC News reported that “a focus group of Walmart moms in Las Vegas… revealed… a broad sense that Romney was the victor. Even so, the women didn’t walk away seeing Romney in a very positive light… the women used words like ‘rude,’ ‘pushy’ and assertive’ — and when asked to clarify if assertive was positive or negative, the woman who offered that description said it was negative.” While those same women didn’t seem too impressed by Obama, either, he’s not the candidate that needed to win them over.

Second, in terms of issues, Romney only nodded toward compassion politics.  He mentioned education, but unlike Bush, he framed it not in compassion terms—that children have a right to a good education—but in competition terms: “Education is key, particularly [for] the future of our economy.”

Finally, several of Romney’s comments implicitly signaled a lack of compassion.  The first is perhaps not so implicit, as it has reached a fever-pitch in social media: Romney’s commitment to de-funding public television, even though he likes Big Bird. Firing Big Bird—a mainstay of early childhood educational programming—does not exactly telegraph compassion.  Romney also referred to economically disadvantaged Americans as “the poor”—until he caught himself late in the debate in a comment on the federal government’s role in education: “…the kids that are getting federal dollars from IDEA or Title I—these are disabled kids or—or—or poor kids or—or lower-income kids, rather….”  The correction was instructive.  The term “poor” is a stigmatizing rather than compassionate term.  It’s unlikely that many noticed Romney’s references to “the poor,” but that’s exactly why they may be so politically powerful.  Many studies have shown that the implicit messages of campaign communication can have the biggest impact, particularly when the messages are about minorities.

In the weeks following the video of Romney’s “47 percent” comments, media reports claimed that he was attempting to soften his image and display more empathy on the campaign trail.  He seemed to know a compassion strategy was essential.  But Romney’s debate performance, and the media coverage thereof, may have only given the women voters he needs more reason to dislike him.  Looking forward, the question is whether he can continue to put Obama on the defensive without seeming offensive to the swing voters Romney needs to win the race.

6 Responses to Why Romney’s Debate Win May Be a Loss among Female Voters

  1. RobC October 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    Your comment about “firing Big Bird” may have been a wry repetition of pro-Obama talking points, but for those who are perhaps less knowledgeable on the subject than you, let it be noted that federal funds for PBS (including amounts distributed through CPB) amount to only about 15% of the PBS budget. Accordingly, federal defunding of PBS would by no means amount to a termination of all PBS programming. Only in Bizarro World would federal defunding of public broadcasting cause Big Bird to be fired.*
    * That’s true even without regard to the fact that Children’s Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, derives a fortune from licensing fees for Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters. It defies logic why PBS pays CTW a nickel for producing Sesame Street programs. In a more rational world, CTW would be paying PBS for the privilege of airing the show.

  2. Corrine McConnaughy October 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    Yes, Rob, the comment was meant to reference the talking point that developed from the comment made during the debate, not to actually declare that PBS or Sesame Street would be definitively undone by an end to federal funding.

  3. RobC October 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    Today’s Pew October update shows pronounced changes among women voters. Whereas likely women voters broke 56-38 for Obama in the September poll Professor McConnaughy wrote about, in the September poll they were evenly split 47-47. To be sure, there may be some doubt as to whether Republicans were oversampled in the October poll. Nevertheless, it appears either that compassion politics plays a smaller role than Professor McConnaughy suggests or that Romney has, despite Professor McConnaughy’s reservations, satisfied many women on that dimension.

    The wide swing in women’s support for Romney is unexpected and unusual, but then we’ve always known that it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.

  4. RobC October 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    My first sentence above should have said “in the October poll they were evenly split 47-47.” Mea culpa.

  5. Corrine McConnaughy October 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    Rob – We could look at the anomalous gender gap numbers in the latest Pew poll as evidence that there was a sudden sea change in women’s vote intentions, or we could use them as yet another reason to question the practice of relying on any singular poll to draw conclusions. Note that a discussion about the latter practice is going on in a number of places, including here in a post by John Sides. I don’t question the notion that there may have been some recent movement among women voters—Romney has been making efforts in their direction—but I’ll wait for more data before I draw the conclusion that he has, indeed, been so effective.

  6. Jim Hale October 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    The post-debate Gall polling and the post-debate Pew polling directly contradict the central premise of the empty-headed analysis. The women voter gap is gone.