April 29 2014
Engage, Disrupt, Win: How Republicans Can 'Finally' Win Women Voters
Younger women are still breaking for Democrats. A recent WSJ/NBC News poll found 46 percent of women ages 18-49 feel “positive” toward the president, and 52 percent of these women say they would favor Democrats this fall over Republicans.
This is no surprise. The GOP has done almost nothing to systematically engage with women voters since the 2012 election. Aside from a handful of female lawmakers who have been vocal on issues like the “Paycheck Fairness Act,” and an occasional cocktail reception to talk about how Republicans shouldstart talking to women, there hasn’t been a concerted effort to connect, communicate, and win those unmarried female voters that favored the president by 36-points in 2012.
The first step for Republicans is to stop the hemorrhaging – that is to make a concerted effort to fight back and neutralize Democrats’ ongoing campaign to convince women the GOP is inherently sexist. Only then can they begin to rebuild a coalition of women who understand and value limited government.
But doing this first requires the GOP goes back to basics.
A central tenet of political behavior research is that public opinion can be massively influenced by elite discourse, especially if elite opinion is all coming from one side. Voters form their opinions about everything from health care policy to foreign affairs, in part, based on cues from trusted political actors, or from more engaged friends and family who notice these signals and pieces of information from elites and adopt them as their own.
One way of looking at this is that voters construct most of their political opinions based on what’s being discussed at that particular time, and are, in effect, “at the top of their head.” The perspective a voter heard that morning on the news or at a dinner party the night before can determine her opinion on complicated issues like the “wage gap” or the “Paycheck Fairness Act.”
In the best of times for conservatives, the flow of information is relatively balanced, with partisans on both sides putting forth arguments and considerations while rejecting the other side. In John Zaller’s famous book The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion, however, he notes that huge shifts in opinion, across the political spectrum, can occur if the flow of political communication becomes one-sided.
And this is exactly the case currently when it comes to the political conversation about “women’s issues” – we’re in a one-sided information environment. Because for too long, the conversation about the workplace, health care, even dating and marriage has been almost entirely directed by liberal women’s groups and representatives, with little or if any response from the Right.
Case in point: the faulty “wage gap” statistic. As the 2012 election revealed, it has become commonplace for voters to accept the mythical “wage gap” statistic – that women only make 77-cents for every dollar a man makes – and Republicans are therefore paralyzed by how to respond to a demand for workplace legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act or the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act.
But we know that when people receive a competing argument, it’s disrupting. Voters hearing new information begin to question their previous understanding of these issues, and are more likely to seek out more, new information.
University of Michigan professor Ted Brader has devoted a lot of attention to understanding the impact of political ads. What we know is that on balance positive ads do little to move voters; rather they polarize voters along existing partisan preferences. Negative ads on the other hand– and not just mudslinging but ads with information – can change behavior because they cause voters to seek out new information.
Experimental research the Independent Women’s Voice conducted in our effort to respond effectively to the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA) and “War on Women” reconfirms this theory. IWV conducted a double-blind, randomized, controlled experiment in which respondents received either one of four treatment messages control group to test the impact those messages had on their views of a range of different issues, from the PFA to ObamaCare to perceptions of fairness.
On its own, the Progressive argument in favor of the PFA generated overwhelming support (90 percent) for the proposed law. Yet when respondents also read an anti-PFA economic message, stressing the negative impact of the legislation of women’s economic opportunity, support decreaseddramatically by 38 points (90 to 52 percent) and opposition rose 26 points, from 5 to 30 percent.
This puts into sharp relief why conservatives and Republicans must respond to issues like the PFA and the War on Women more broadly. If Republicans have any hope of winning women, they have to start by offering another voice. Not by hosting a happy hour; not by trotting out a high-profile female lawmaker to give a speech; and not for “14 weeks” in the lead up to an election.
Winning women requires a conversation that aggressively makes the conservative case for why our policy ideas are better for women and America. Only then will women consider an alternative idea, seek out new information, and reject the “War on Women” status quo.