The GOP can’t win a national race without the support of women. At 53% of the electorate in the 2012 election, women broke for Obama decisively, 55% to 44%. Additionally, single women, which made up a nearly a quarter of all voters, went for Obama by more than two-thirds.
Earlier this week at an event hosted by the Independent Women’s Forum, a stellar line-up of women thinkers explained what the Romney campaign missed: To win, the GOP must have a strategy for reaching women that involves communicating with them on issues they care about. The discussion should be mandatory viewing for anyone who cares about conservative candidates making inroads with female voters.
But left unanswered was the question of how conservatives could speak to younger women in a society where the institutions upon which conservative policies depend — family, faith, work, and community — have been severely attenuated. When it did come up in the form of an audience question, — how to convince a young, single mother to support conservative principles — panelist Mollie Hemingway suggested teaching vulnerable young women the value of marriage for both reducing poverty and improving children’s outcomes.
Point taken. Most people, including writers for the New York Times, agree that stable, two parent households are the ideal. But is this a solution for all women?
Given the facts regarding young men these days, it can’t be. The truth is that, when it comes to men, the floor is falling out. As Charles Murray shows in his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” men are dropping from the labor force, signing up for disability, not graduating from college, and in too many cases, ending up in jail. In other words, women are left in the lurch because men aren’t holding up their end of the bargain conservative policies require.
So when conservatives reach out to women what do we say? We can’t just say “stay married,” or, for sake of another policy problem often bandied about in GOP circles, “lowering entitlement spending and cutting social programs will encourage job growth.” The answers from women will be “but he’s a drain on my income, and my children are better off without his influence,” or “job growth to what end?” So where is the solution for a young single mother?
Another frequent conservative solution relies on community and local institutions, and conservatives are correct that these institutions are critical for bettering lives. But the foundation of community has long been the church, and in higher poverty areas, church attendance has dropped precipitously. Why should women, who on average are more risk averse than men, risk their security for something that seems nonexistent?
We do need solutions that rekindle communities. But these solutions have to accept people’s circumstances. With all the policy problems that have dominated for the last several years, we’ve lost touch with the daily realities of many women. We won’t ever convince people, particularly women, of the value of conservative big ideas if we can’t convince them that we have solutions that address their daily needs.
In the last election, the American people were looking for trust and compassion which, as my AEI colleague Henry Olsen has pointed out, Obama carried by a margin of 63 percentage points, giving him the election. So until the American people can trust that conservative candidates both recognize and feel empathy for these voters’ deepest anxieties and to then work with them on that level, we won’t see voting behaviors change.
So while it is important to advocate for marriage and family, accepting that it’s not optimal or even possible for everyone, is an important step towards electoral victory. The great intellectual tradition that is American conservatism is surely big enough to address women as their lives exist today, not as we wish they could be.