In the 2012 presidential election, the Democratic Party coined the phrase “war on women” in order to distinguish President Obama’s superior commitment to women’s reproductive rights from the Republicans’ alleged lack of such a commitment. In particular, Obama’s healthcare reform plan included a birth control mandate, which was widely unpopular among conservatives, and of course, Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The Democrats, then, saw this as an opportunity to sway female voters in swing states toward Obama’s side. What’s more, it seemed to work. Now, the war on women has taken on new meaning and new importance. Can the Republicans take control of the issue and call off the “war” they never wanted? Should Democrats keep pushing the issue even if they can? In this post, I’ll explore how and why the war on women became a successful appeal for Democratic candidates and what it means for current candidates just two years later.
The propagation of the phrase “war on women” by the Democratic Party, like-minded grassroots groups, and the media in 2012 is a perfect example of what Shanto Iyengar and Jennifer McGrady call a wedge appeal. In Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, they explain that wedge issues are raised during campaigns in order to “pit groups against each other,” (198). They give race and ethnicity as prime examples, but in 2012, the war on women rhetoric aimed to drive a wedge among Republicans and independents based on gender. Social issues, including women’s reproductive rights, were not important issues to voters in 2012, at least not until the Democratic campaign sought to make them more important. According to Gallup, for example, most voters ranked the economy and unemployment as the most important issues, while they ranked social issues least important (“Economy”).
Although healthcare reform was seen as important, I’d argue that the war on women rhetoric represents an attempt to frame the issue more as a social justice one than an economic policy one. Obama’s women-centered campaign ads used images from historic women’s rights movements and buzzwords like “fair” and “equal” much more frequently than they mentioned healthcare reform and the actual changes that Obama sought to make with it.
In this way, the Obama campaign, and the countless grassroots organizations that supported it, sought to make women’s rights a deciding issue in the election, at least among women. What’s more, research shows that they succeeded. In an empirical study of the election, Melissa Deckman and John McTague found that support for the birth control mandate made female voters 23 percent more likely to vote for Obama (16). Furthermore, Gallup reports that Obama won the female vote by 12 percentage points, while Romney won the male vote by 8 percentage points (“Gender”). Not only did Obama win over more female voters than Romney, but he also contributed to the largest gender gap that Gallup has ever measured in a presidential election. Clearly, the wedge issue had worked.
Fast-forward to 2014, where it seems that the wedge issue has become an inescapable brand for the GOP. The phrase war on has now come to connote much more than access to birth control, including the Republicans’ views on abortion, sexual assault, and equal pay. It has very prominently stuck around since 2012, with a new mention online every 3.2 seconds, according to Social Radar. This continuation of the discussion suggests that women’s rights is set to become an owned issue in coming elections, owned largely by the Democratic Party that first employed it as a wedge in 2012.
As a result of this continuation of the phrase, Republicans still have an uphill battle ahead of them in terms of garnering the female vote, however the likelihood of women’s issues being a decisive factor in the 2014 midterm elections seems extremely low. A recent poll from the Associated Press and GfK shows that Democrats maintain their significant edge over Republicans in social issues like abortion, but these issues are once again ranked least important when compared with the economy, healthcare, immigration, and national security (Agiesta).
Furthermore, some research and experts suggest that it’s time to drop the war on women altogether. In a recent interview with the National Journal, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake asserted that the war on women rhetoric does not test well among women. “Women find it divisive, political,” she says (Schultheis). Still, the mere fact that there is an article in the National Journal and headlines from several other well-established news outlets centering around the phrase “war on women” shows that the wedge issue itself is here to stay, at least for the time being.
There’s no doubt that women’s rights should be important to voters and candidates. What’s interesting, though, is how the GOP’s “war on women” came to be. As a wedge issue in 2012, it successfully divided voters in swing states, as it was intended to. As an emerging owned issue in 2014, the question becomes less about each party’s position on women’s rights and more about the degree to which these issues decide elections.
Agiesta, Jennifer. “AP-GfK Poll: Top Issues in the Midterm Election.” ABC News. ABC. 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.<http%3A%2F%2Fabcnews.go.com%2FPolitics%2FwireStory%2Fap-gfk-poll-top-issues-midterm-election-25900965%3FsinglePage%3Dtrue>.
Deckman, Melissa, and John McTague. “Did the “War on Women” Work? Women,Men, and the Birth Control Mandate in the 2012 Presidential Election.” Did the “War on Women” Work? Women, Men, and the Birth Control Mandate in the 2012 Presidential Election. American Politics Research, 9 July 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <http://apr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/07/08/1532673X14535240.full.pdf%2Bhtml>.
Iyengar, Shanto, and Jennifer A. McGrady. “Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide.” (n.d.):182-201. Print.
Jones, Jeffrey M. “Economy Is Paramount Issue to U.S. Voters.” Economy Is Paramount Issue to U.S. Voters. Gallup, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.<http://www.gallup.com/poll/153029/economy-paramount-issue-voters.aspx>.
Jones, Jeffrey M. “Gender Gap in 2012 Vote Is Largest in Gallup’s History.” Gender Gap in 2012 Vote Is Largest in Gallup’s History. Gallup, 9 Nov. 2012. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/158588/gender-gap-2012-vote-largest-gallup-history.aspx>.
Saad, Lydia. “U.S. Still Split on Abortion: 47% Pro-Choice, 46% Pro-Life.” U.S. Still Split on Abortion: 47% Pro-Choice, 46% Pro-Life. Gallup, 22 May 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/170249/split-abortion-pro-choice-pro-life.aspx>.
Schultheis, Emily. “Why Democrats Are Ditching the ‘War on Women'” www.nationaljournal.com. National Journal, 31 July 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/why-democrats-are-ditching-the-war-on-women-20140731>.
“War on Women.” Social Radar. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014 <https://www.socialradar.net/overview#page=overview&query=war%20on%20women&qid=&influence=&writing_level=&watchlist=&category=&country=&state=&language=&sources=&gender=&age=&start_date=6%20months%20ago&end_date=Now&query_within=&query_within_qid=>.
“Women’s Voices – Join Women for Obama.” YouTube. YouTube, 1 Oct. 2012. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae2lnhQQPDw>.