How to make the gender gap worse

Did Scott Walker just give Obama an opening to drive an even bigger wedge between women and the GOP?

Topics: War Room,

How to make the gender gap worseScott Walker (Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck)

There’s been much discussion this week of the gender gap in the presidential race, which has exploded since Republicans decided in February to pick a fight with President Obama over contraception.

A survey of voters in 12 swing states released at the start of the week showed Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney among women surging to 18 points, compared to just 1 with men. Among independent women in those states, Obama is now ahead by 14 points – a complete turnaround from late last year, when he trailed Romney by 5 with the same group. The sizable overall leads that Obama now enjoys are largely the result of this movement of women.

But as National Journal’s Ron Brownstein showed, the shift is coming from a very specific subset of the female population: college-educated white women. As Brownstein explained,

They are consistently the portion of the white electorate that shows the most receptivity to activist government and also tend toward the most liberal positions on social issues, from abortion to gay rights to the availability of contraception.

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In other words, the contraception debate (and, probably, the national controversy over Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound law) is probably at the heart of Romney’s – and the GOP’s – gender problem. The hopeful spin from Republicans is that it will go away once Romney is clear of the GOP primaries and the national conversation is again focused on the economy. It may turn out that there’s something to this.

But it’s also possible the gender gap could get worse for the GOP. For that to happen, the party would have to do something to turn off blue-collar, non-college-educated white women – “waitress moms,” as Brownstein refers to them. Right now, these women seem largely unmoved by the contraception debate, and by Democratic efforts to paint the GOP as culturally extreme. But what if there were an issue that ties gender and the economic interests of waitress moms together?

Greg Sargent flagged an interesting possibility today involving Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who just scrapped the state’s equal pay law.  As Sargent notes, Walker is now a nationally significant figure, thanks to the efforts to recall him. He’s also a celebrated figure on the right, which is why Romney hailed him as “hero” last week.

This could put Romney in an uncomfortable spot. Sargent got Obama’s campaign to lash out at the repeal and to call on Romney to take a stand; if the issue is forced, Romney will have to choose between spitting in the face of a conservative icon and causing himself immense intraparty grief, or giving Obama an opening with waitress moms.

Notably, the last Democratic president to win reelection did so on the strength of a gender gap comparable to the one measured in the new swing state poll. In the 1996 election, Clinton managed to extend his appeal to blue-collar women with a stream of relatively noncontroversial initiatives – school uniforms, the V-chip, an end to “drive-through” child deliveries – that showed waitress moms that he was mindful of their concerns.

In 2008, Obama won 41 percent of the white working-class women’s vote – a good showing for a Democrat these days. But he was more popular overall back then and the national playing field was tilted decidedly in his favor. Winning back the blue-collar women he’s lost (and winning over new ones) is one of Obama’s general election challenges.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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