Democrats, Republicans Use Differing Convention Messages to Appeal to Women Voters


CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Women voters were the target of much of the rhetoric at the Republican and Democratic conventions in the past two weeks, but analysts say their appeals to that key demographic were distinctly different.

Both parties showcased their high-achieving women at the podium, but the words they used and issues they chose to highlight hit different segments of the population.

Republicans talked about women often in terms of their roles as wives and mothers, said Washington College political science professor Melissa Deckman: "The GOP talked about kitchen-table economics."

Democrats, on the other hand, were much more specific on policy, she said. Deckman cited the speech by GOP nominee Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, as an example of the GOP rhetoric.

"What struck me about Ann Romney's speech was that she was talking about how women find it harder to pay for gas at the pump, and other household budget issues" that directly appeal to mothers, Deckman said. "She calls to mind a traditional idea of what families are."

Romney said: "It's the moms who always have to work a little harder to make everything right. It's the moms of this nation—single, married, widowed—who really hold this country together ... You're the ones who always have to do a little more."

First lady Michelle Obama, who spoke to Democrats Tuesday, called herself "mother-in-chief" in her speech, but there were policy specifics in the address that were tailored to appeal to women more broadly, Deckman said.

For example, Obama said: "So when it comes to rebuilding our economy, Barack is thinking about folks like my dad and like his grandmother. He's thinking about the pride that comes from a hard day's work. That's why he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to help women get equal pay for equal work. That's why he cut taxes for working families and small businesses and fought to get the auto industry back on its feet."

The stakes are high this year, and every vote counts. Polls show a virtual tie between Romney and President Barack Obama. In the last presidential race, statistics show more women voted than men. And, a recent CNN Opinion Research poll showed 54 percent of women favor Obama, compared to 42 percent of women leaning toward Romney.

At their convention, which ran Tuesday through Thursday, the Democrats drilled down on social issues like marriage equality, ending domestic violence, working for fair wages and ensuring women's health care.

Democrats also said they wanted to prevent "turning back the clock" in the abortion-rights battle after recent controversies, including Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's inaccurate statements during a television interview that a woman's body has a way of preventing pregnancy during "forcible rape."

Deckman said the tactic of focusing on reproductive rights issues could backfire because it may deter voters who are not passionate about the issue.

"Most voters have already made up their minds. For the undecided voters it is more about the economy," Deckman said.

On Tuesday, the Democrats scheduled almost all of the elected female House members to speak. On Wednesday, it was all the elected senators, led by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is the longest-serving woman in Congress.

Their lineup also included Lilly Ledbetter, whose lawsuit became the basis for the new fair-pay law; and attorney and Obama activist Sandra Fluke, who became widely known when radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" after she testified in front of a congressional panel in favor of contraception.

"They (Democratic speakers) were not talking to women only as mothers but about women as workers—women in the workforce actually dealing with issues of underemployment or job discrimination," said Jeana DelRosso, English department chairwoman and women's studies professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University.

The speakers at the Republican National Convention, on the other hand, opted for a more general approach, praising women's leadership in elected positions as well as the strength of mothers and focusing on family finances, DelRosso said.

The GOP also featured a bevy of governors: Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke in a prime-time slot.

"The Republicans were on the defensive because there has been a lot said about a so-called war on women," by the GOP, said Dennis Simon, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Republicans, he said, avoided talking about reproductive rights and extending contraceptive benefits, or talked about them in neutral language.

"What the Republicans are trying to do is to say, 'There is room for conservative women in this party,'" Simon said.

Simon, an expert on presidential elections, public opinion and electoral behavior, said Democrats are using their speakers to reinforce a message that says they are a "more women-friendly party."

Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, attended the Republican and Democratic conventions to make presentations for the Political Parity Project—a nonpartisan initiative created to increase the number of women at the highest levels of government.

She said that the parties' outreach to women, particularly the moderate ones, was apparent in the attention women's issues received before and during the conventions.

"Democrats are keenly aware that they need to energize that (female) base," Walsh said, "while the Republican side recognizes the need to narrow the gender gap they have."

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