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US presidential elections: Gender wars

Women as a block themselves are not a cohesive vote with single and non-white women favouring President Obama by a significant margin and married and white women favouring Mitt Romney      

It is quite clear that what is keeping President Obama’s re-election bid afloat is women. A US Today Gallup Poll of swing states shows a difference of 20 percentage points in the presidential preferences of men and women. Women support President Obama by 12 points. Men support Mitt Romney by eight points. 50% to 42% women make up 53% of the electorate. Though the gap has been narrowing, it remains quite stubborn. In the 2008 election there was a significant gender gap in favour of Barrack Obama which carried him through to the Presidency. But in the congressional elections of 2010, the Republicans won the women’s vote by 49% to 48% which led to the Republican landslide given the advantages the Republicans have among men.

But women as a block themselves are not a cohesive vote with single and non-white women favouring President Obama by a significant margin and married and white women favouring Mitt Romney. The Democratic Party’s policies are generally friendlier to women than the Republican Party’s policies. For instance the Democrats believe in equal pay for equal work whereas the Republican attitude towards it is more ambivalent and they do not want to impose an additional burden on small businesses who are their constituents. Further, on women’s issues such as abortion and contraception the Republican Party is moving to the right and seems to be out of tune with the wishes of women. This dovetails with the fact that women are slowly but surely getting more powerful. For instance they now constitute more than half of the workforce and seem to be asserting themselves though the proverbial glass ceiling is still in place. No one is any more surprised when the Augusta National Golf Club for the first time in history admits women members including Condi Rice and the question when two ladies are admitted for the first time is why only two ladies and why not more? It is increasingly common, if not routine, to have women head Fortune 500 corporations. Hewlett Packard, Yahoo and Pepsi all come to mind. The Republican Party has not kept pace with these changes. The Democratic Party has declared the attitude of the Republican Party as a war against women.

In the case of Roe Vs Wade, the United States Supreme Court in 1973 guaranteed women a constitutional right of abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. The Republican Party, ever since that judgement, has been trying to reverse it. Despite the Supreme Court having turned to the right over the last 40 years and despite several appointments by the Republican president, it has failed. The precedent of Roe Vs Wade is intact. It might be interesting to notice that the majority judgement in the case was written by justice Harry Blackmun who was a Republican appointee to Supreme court.      

On the abortion issue Mitt Romney’s position has been here, there and everywhere. When he ran for the Governor of Massachusetts—a liberal state—he said that he was personally opposed to abortion but would not oppose it as a policy. However, when it came to signing an important Stem Cell Bill he did not do it and said was unable to do so. Running for the presidency, he opposes abortion but says it’s ok in cases of rape incest and when the life of the woman is in danger. He has, however, chosen Representative Paul Ryan as the vice-presidential running mate who opposes abortion in all cases including rape.

All the Republican presidents, since the path-breaking Roe Vs Wade judgement of the Supreme Court in 1973, have had an ambivalent policy on abortion. Ronald Regan was the Governor of California (a liberal western state) before he became president and a law he had brought into force in California led to thousands of abortions. However, he ran for president calling for a constitutional amendment banning abortion though he never did much about it. His successor George HW Bush called for adoption rather than abortion and the younger President George Bush was also constrained by the fact that there were democratic majorities in at least one of the chambers of congress so that no law overturning Roe could be passed.

However, what is known as late term abortion or partial birth abortion was banned by Congress in 2003. George W Bush did say that he would not make the opposition to Roe Vs Wade a litmus test for his Supreme Court appointees. However, all the presidents appointed prolife judges to the Supreme Court in the hope that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe Vs Wade but the court has not done so.

Mitt Romney’s already difficult task of persuading women to vote for him has been complicated by the comments of the Senate candidate for Missouri, Representative Todd Akin who said that pregnancy from rape is “really rare” and implied that the female reproductive system is able to block conception from an unwanted pregnancy, reports the Washington Post. This has to the glee of the Democrats caused a huge storm and the Republicans are back-pedalling hard to restrict the damage.

Governor Mitt Romney’s best hope of winning back women is to highlight the fact that the great recession has been harsher on women than on men and more women have lost jobs than men during the great recession. Republican pollsters also say that abortion is not one of the top five concerns of women polled and the Republicans can hope that the storm created by Todd Akin blows over. Governor Romney should also showcase his record in Massachusetts where he appointed an unusually large number of women to top positions as also his support to his wife Ann Romney after she got multiple sclerosis.

Mitt Romney now has the task of reaching out to women while at the same time not alienating his conservative supporters, which is actually quite a difficult task.

(Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)

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