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US election 2012: Mitt Romney's problem with women

Sunday, 8 April 2012 - 11:35am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
It should have been a good week for Mitt Romney, winning three important primary elections so decisively that people began to talk about when, not if, he would wrap up his White House nomination.

It should have been a good week for Mitt Romney, winning three important primary elections so decisively that people began to talk about when, not if, he would wrap up his White House nomination.

He won among strong conservative and evangelical voters, stripping Rick Santorum, his only plausible remaining Republican rival, of his rationale to soldier on.

But for the contest against President Barack Obama that lies ahead, Romney received ominous news as well. Polls in the key states where the battle for the White House will be decided showed Obama ahead of him for the first time, by nine percentage points.

And if that were not enough, the same polls showed he has a significant women problem: among them, Obama's lead in the battleground states was exactly twice as large.

Now, traditionally Democrats do better with women, and Republicans do better with men.

The reasons for this could be debated at length. But the chasm for Romney among female voters is currently so deep, he must make some reparations if he is to win later this year. As he admitted last week: "We have work to do to make sure we take our message to the women of America."

It's not the first time Obama has done well with women voters: in the 2008 election against John McCain he won the support of 56 per cent of them, equalling Ronald Reagan's record in 1980. He also won an amazing 77 per cent of young, unmarried women's votes.

But it presents Romney with a serious challenge. Only one presidential candidate in recent times, Democrat or Republican, has won without winning the majority of women's votes: George W Bush. His first election win in 2000 was more close-fought than any candidate would wish for; but in 2004 he won more comfortably, having persuaded nearly seven million more women to vote for him.

How did he win them over? He did not pander. He focused on economic security and national security; on liberty and on freedom.

In addition to his wife Laura, he surrounded himself with strong women such as Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, then as secretary of state; Elaine Chao as secretary of labour, and Christine Todd Whitman as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to name just a few.

Bush also spoke from the heart, emphasising the idea of compassionate conservatism. He talked repeatedly about education reform and "leaving no child behind". And he never shrank from his faith.

During a key debate in the 2000 election, Bush was asked who his favourite philosopher was. Without hesitation, he answered: "Jesus Christ."

Today the top issues of concern to women voters are the same as for men, even if in a slightly different order: the economy, jobs and the national debt. Despite media attention on the row over Obama's insistence that health insurance policies must offer free birth control, contraception ranks last as an issue of concern, either for women or for men.

And though the 2012 election will likely be decided by pocketbook issues, a focus on faith and family could be key to Romney gaining more support from women and other key voting blocs.

A candidate's faith tells us of his character, as Bush realised. But so far Romney has studiously avoided the topic on the campaign trail because, as a Mormon, it is such a careful dance.

It is not the tenets of his own Church he should discuss, but the remarkably compelling story of how his family's faith and perseverance drove him to become an American success.

Despite hardships, persecution and poverty through the 1800s and early 1900s, his ancestors granted him a legacy of determination - a gift he and his father used to build their successes from the bottom up.

Yes, Romney is a millionaire now, but he remains committed to his faith and his family. And at his side a strong woman, his wife Ann, may prove to be as effective an advocate for her husband as Michelle Obama is for hers.

His message should be that he wants every American to know they have the same opportunity to succeed, to overcome any prejudice against their faith or their heritage.

During the 2008 primary campaign, from which he eventually withdrew, he spoke movingly of his faith. Now, perhaps, he needs to do so again. And speaking from his heart could woo more women than a gimmick like picking a vice-president for the Republican ticket based on gender - which some are pressing for.

This election really is all about women, not as some special interest group but as the majority of all voters in every presidential election since 1964.

The polls may show Romney can't win with women today, but he certainly can't win without them come election day.

He should look to George W Bush for lessons learnt: then, women could be his winning ticket to the White House.

 Mark McKinnon is a former Republican strategist who worked on the campaigns of George W Bush and John McCain


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