As voters careen into the 2016 election cycle, a lot of things may sound familiar. Bush, Clinton, and a bloated Republican field all feel like retreads of recent election cycles. And one recurring theme that’s likely to pop up again is the “war on women.”
In 2012, the talking point that Republicans were launching a “war on women” emerged after public backlash to state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds and Republican Senate candidates who claimed no “legitimate rape” could result in a pregnancy and even if they did, women should consider them a “gift from God.” This led to one of the largest gender gaps in party preference in American history, with women splitting in favor of Democrats by an average of 18 points. Following the election the GOP released a a soul-searching autopsy report about its so-called “woman problem”:
The RNC must improve its efforts to include female voters and promote women to leadership ranks within the committee. Additionally, when developing our Party’s message, women need to be part of this process to represent some of the unique concerns that female voters may have. There is growing unrest within the community of Republican women frustrated by the Party’s negative image among women, and the women who participated in our listening sessions contributed many constructive ideas of ways to improve our brand with women throughout the country and grow the ranks of influential female voices in the Republican Party.
But in 2014, Republicans re-took the Senate, expanded control of the House, and even took governorships in blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland. The “war on women,” everyone from Slate to Town Hall declared, was over.
Sen. Mark ‘Uterus’
The key piece of evidence that Democrats fumbled the 2014 elections by betting on the “war on women” seemed to be the Senate race in Colorado. In the weeks leading up to the election, Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Joshua Green filed a dispatch from the state noting that the focus of former Sen. Mark Udall’s campaign was almost entirely built on reproductive rights issues — a trick that had worked to great effect for Democrats across the country in 2012. “The main line of attack is Gardner’s record on birth control and abortion, which he opposes even in cases of rape and incest,” Green wrote. Indeed, the state NARAL chapter ran a satirical radio ad warning men that there would be condom shortage if then-Rep. Cory Gardner were elected to the Senate, a callback to previous support of the extreme anti-choice personhood amendment in the state. A retired National Wildlife Federation executive complained about Udall’s strategy, “His ads are all about abortion!”
This led Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway to mock the strategy of candidates focusing on reproductive rights in elections during a panel hosted by the Concerned Women for America, “What do most women do every week? Do they fill up the gas tank and the grocery cart? Or do they get an abortion? The notion that we can’t think about anything other than from the waist down is congenitally flawed.”
Republicans seemed to walk away from the 2014 elections declaring victory in the “war on women.” All of the reflection on women’s issues that the GOP wrung their hands over in 2012 was replaced with a straightforward “memo” on their victory. “Candidates pushed back against Democrats’ false attacks, particularly their singled-minded focus on misleading women voters,” Republicans wrote on their website. Indeed, the “Growth & Opportunity Project” Republicans launched after the 2012 election hasn’t been updated since March of last year.
But the ” war on women” isn’t over. Not by a long shot, a Democratic pollster says.
What the polling says
Following the election, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner partnered with Planned Parenthood and NARAL to replicate some of the polling likely done by the Udall campaign. The results showed voters responded more positively to arguments that mentioned defunding Planned Parenthood, limiting women’s access to birth control or abortion, and equal pay than arguments about Koch brothers funding, protecting Social Security, or even raising the minimum wage.
“Protecting women’s access to health care and protecting women’s access to abortion were among some of the strongest predictors of the vote … the strongest predictor of voting Democratic,” said Anna Greenberg.
In other words, the reason that Udall talked about reproductive rights is because talking about them was effective.
But if it was so effective, why did Udall lose? Greenberg says there are several factors at play. First, the map and the demographics tilted heavily in the favor of Republicans. More red-state Democrats were up in 2014 than blue-state Republicans. And people who vote in non-presidential years tend to be older, whiter, and more conservative.
Secondly, Gardner wasn’t perceived as extreme as Ken Buck, who ran against Bennett in 2012. Greenberg said Buck’s previous track record, including telling voters not to back his female opponent because “I do not wear high heels” and comparing pregnancy to cancer, indicated to voters he was “way, way out there.” Gardner also did a lot of work to distance himself from his previous support for extreme anti-abortion measures like the personhood ballot initiative. Republicans did actually manage to defeat tea party challengers in 2014, though many of these candidates were defeated by having the “establishment” candidate move to the right on several key issues.
“I think there was some recognition on Gardner’s part that these issues didn’t work well for Republicans in this state,” Greenberg said. Compared to Buck’s extreme record, “Gardner didn’t appear as extreme. It was an easier case.”
But Greenberg certainly lays some blame at the feet of Democrats. “You could make the argument that the failure of the Democratic Party, broadly defined, to own the economic growth and have a compelling economic narrative was a much bigger problem for Democrats was a discussion of choice in Colorado,” she said.
Looking ahead to 2016
If there are some who may “overlearn” the lessons of 2014, early signs show the big players aren’t abandoning the “war on women.” But they are expanding to a more economic-focused message. Hillary Clinton recently made a big speech on equal pay in North Carolina, showing that Democrats are focusing on economic issues in addition to reproductive health issues. “Too many women still earn less than men on the job. Women of color often make even less,” Clinton said.
But if Democrats can pivot to a pro-women agenda that also talks about the economic struggles women and their families face, can Republicans respond accordingly? Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican presidential field, responded to a question about Clinton’s equal pay speech that while “of course” she supported equal pay, she was also concerned that the government bureaucracy protected male government workers who watch porn at work. And Scott Walker seems to be turning a hard right on abortion issues, saying he’ll sign a 20-week abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest in Wisconsin.
Republicans also had to quell a recent intraparty fight over a 20-week abortion ban in which Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) pulled support from the initial bill over requiring rape victims to report to the police before they would qualify for an exemption. But as Marcy Stech of EMILY’s List told ThinkProgress, the concern was mainly over the optics of supporting such a bill since “social issues” were important to millennial voters.
Meanwhile, Republican-controlled state legislatures continue the trend of passing a glut of anti-abortion measures, including some fresh new attacks like trying to call some types of abortion procedures “dismemberment” or passing laws requiring doctors to tell women their abortions can be reversed (they can’t).
Putting women on the ballot
“Republicans don’t understand women, they don’t trust women. They continue to be out of touch,” Stech said. EMILY’s List is, of course, using that message to promote their Democratic, pro-choice candidates. Data have shown that, even though this Congress has an unprecedented number of Republican senators, much of the growth of women in the legislative body is thanks to Democrats.
Having candidates who actually are women can be an advantage, Stech said, “women can speak from experience.” Women can make a more compelling case on issues important to women. And there are already several female candidates vying for key Senate seats, from California to Illinois.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups show no sign of backing down. NARAL held a conference call to discuss their Own It 2016 campaign, which tries to keep the pressure up on Republicans to respond to issues of reproductive health. And EMILY’s List put 15 incumbent Republicans “on notice” over women’s issues. Though the power of advocacy groups isn’t the end-all be-all of an election, they can take credit for helping to block extreme anti-choice candidates like former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who promoted junk science like saying abortion causes breast cancer, during his failed gubernatorial campaign.
“Republicans have pushed their anti-woman agenda in Washington long enough — and come 2016, we’re looking forward to sending them packing,” wrote EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock in a Medium post. And recently, Gallup’s polling (which too neatly categorizes people into pro-choice and pro-life, regardless of their more complicated feelings about abortion) found that for the first time in seven years, more Americans are identifying as “pro-choice” than “pro-life.” And unmarried women, two-thirds of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2012, are becoming an increasingly important share of the Democratic electorate. The key, of course, is actually getting them to vote.
Democrats’ campaign groups show no sign of abandoning such attacks. “I don’t think people should be surprised if 2016 campaigns talk about women’s issues,” Tom Lopach, the new executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told National Journal in January.
“At the end of the day, people want to do what works,” Greenberg said. Depending on which Republican winds up winning the nomination, she said, it’s hard to see Democrats abandoning reproductive issues based on the fact that Udall lost. “I just don’t see people having that conversation. That’s not how campaigns work.”
“People want to win,” she said.