A woman named “Jenni” is the face of one of the Republican Party’s biggest difficulties in the Nov. 6 election: its estrangement from many female voters.
She’s the fictitious star of a television ad by President Barack Obama’s campaign as Democrats warned of a Republican-led “war on women” they said could end the constitutional right to abortion if Republican Mitt Romney were elected.
“I’ve never felt this way before, but it’s a scary time to be a woman,” the woman said in the ad that ran 8,715 times in critical states including Colorado, Florida, Missouri and New Hampshire.
The spot was one of many Democratic ads targeting women voters after efforts by state and federal Republican lawmakers that may have limited access to abortion, birth control and equal pay.
Added to that were Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s statement that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy, and Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s reference to pregnancies resulting from rape as “something God intended to happen.” Both Republican candidates lost their elections.
The Republican Party “has a women problem,” said Jean Schroedel, a politics professor at Claremont Graduate University in California who focuses on issues affecting women and children. “You can be opposed to abortion and still sound like you care about women, but some of these comments cut really, really deeply.”
‘Crossed a Line’
“They have crossed a line, absolutely crossed a line,” Schroedel said. As many as one in four women in the U.S. have been victims of sexual assault, including rapes leading to pregnancy, she said.
For the past 10 years, the abortion issue has primarily mobilized Republican women in opposition. That changed in this election as Democratic women sought to protect their right to abortion, she said.
Exit polls showed that Obama had an 11 percentage-point advantage over Romney among female voters on Nov. 6. Four years ago his support from women voters was 13 points higher than that for Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee.
The Democratic theme of a “war on women” may have prevented Romney from attracting more female voters, said Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute, which supports the Republican principle of limited government.
“The Democrats started very early in the Obama campaign with the ‘war on women’ rhetoric,” said Bowman. “They were very effective with their advertisements” and “got a huge amount of media attention.”
On the abortion issue alone, Democrats and their allies ran 22,126 advertisements since the start of the campaign, compared with 6,654 ads run by Republicans, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG.
The ads tapped into efforts among Republican-led state legislatures to enact restrictions on abortion. In all, 92 anti-abortion-rights measures passed in 2011, the highest in history; this year ranks second with 40 measures, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that backs reproductive and abortion rights.
According to an Oct. 5-11 Gallup Poll of voters in swing states, a plurality, or 39 percent of women, said abortion was the most important issue for their gender in this election. Nineteen percent of women said jobs. Men identified jobs as the top issue for their gender.
‘Swamped’ Other Issues
“It was very striking and it swamped every other issue,” said Bowman.
Even so, she said she remains skeptical that the issue had heightened importance this year because there was no historical data to compare the poll findings with.
Republicans may have been hurt by the U.S. House proposal to change Medicare’s guaranteed benefit into a voucher program, according to a poll by Emily’s List, a political action committee geared toward electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. Sixty-nine percent of independent women in battleground states said the plan would be a reason not to vote Republican, according to the Aug. 18 survey.
Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock said that while Obama didn’t increase his margin with women voters this year, their concern over threats to their reproductive and health rights motivated them to vote for him. In 2008, their chief concerns were economic, she said.
“We had a debate about rape this year. How did that happen? That’s just absurd,” she said.
Republicans in Congress also unsuccessfully tried to end federal funds for Planned Parenthood, which focuses most of its services on women’s health care including physical exams, health screening and vaccines. Party members also sought to let employers refuse to cover birth control and other health services that violate their religious beliefs.
Many Republicans opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation Obama signed into law in January 2009, which makes it easier for workers to win pay-discrimination lawsuits. An Emily’s List poll in July found that 71 percent of women in battleground states said a Republican attempt to block the measure was a convincing reason not to vote for that party.
Difficulty in connecting with women voters may be a problem for Republicans in future elections, said Bowman. In the next Census, she said, single women for whom abortion and contraception issues are most important are expected to make up 47 percent of adult women. That number was in the 30s during the 1980s, she said.
Concern over issues affecting women and families may lead more women to enter politics, said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
The largest number of women ever will serve in the next Congress starting in January, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
Senate Democrats chose a woman, Patty Murray of Washington, to lead their recruitment and election efforts this year, and the effort paid off, said Bystrom.
Twenty women -- 16 Democrats and four Republicans -- will serve in the Senate next year, compared with two in the session that convened in 1991. The House will have a record of at least 76 women -- 56 Democrats and 20 Republicans. New Hampshire will have the first all-female congressional delegation -- two women senators and two women House members.
While some female potential candidates may be turned off from politics by Washington’s vitriolic environment, they increasingly see federal policies as a threat to their communities and their families, Bystrom said.
“Men oftentimes see politics as a career, and women tend to see it as a solution to problems that affect them personally,” she said. “As compared to previous elections, abortion, birth control and health care really were high on women’s radar screens.”