AUGUST 15, 2012: Not So Fast: Judging Paul Ryan’s Impact on the Women’s Vote

Since almost the moment Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as the vice presidential nominee, journalists and activists have claimed that he’s “bad for women” and suggested that President Obama is now sure to win the women’s vote.

While it’s true that in the last five presidential contests the Democrats have earned the support of more women than the Republicans, the level of women’s support has varied greatly from one election to the next. Simply put, winning the women’s vote does not equate to winning the election.

Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 each earned 54% of the women’s vote; only Clinton won the White House. In 2004, John Kerry secured 51% of women voters and lost.

Although Barack Obama drew 56% of women voters in 2008 and won the election, it’s not a given that he will again garner this historic level of support from women. According to Gallup, Obama’s support among white women has fallen since 2008, and given that this group of women is again likely to make up about 39% of the electorate, this 6% drop-off could prove decisive.

Considering the 2006 and 2010 midterm election exit polling along with the presidential contests, the take-away from the last twenty years is this:

When women voters split fairly evenly between the parties, Republicans tend to win. This means Obama needs to win a large - not small - majority of women, if he hopes to win reelection.

Right now, Gallup’s polls show Obama drawing support from 50% of women registered voters in the trial heat match-ups with Romney. But it’s anyone’s guess as to how the 8% of undecided voters will cast their ballots in November, and whether Obama can attract enough women to overcome his low support among men.

But the bigger issue is that it’s not that meaningful to generalize about women’s views on politics when their partisan affiliation explains far more than their gender.

For while more women than men tend “to favor an active role for government,” and it’s this view which largely underlies the Democratic Party’s advantage among women, it can’t be ignored that since Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination in 2008, more conservative women have gotten involved with the Republican Party and won elective office.

And many of these newly elected women – from Representatives Kristi Noem (SD) and Jaime Herrera Buetler (WA) to Governors Susana Martinez (NM), Mary Fallin (OK), and Nikki Haley (SC) – would not have even made it to the general election without the grassroots support of the Tea Party. Importantly, this same dynamic has continued in the 2012 cycle with women candidates like Nebraska’s Deb Fischer who won a contested GOP primary in May.

Romney’s selection of Representative Paul Ryan surely thrilled these conservative women. In fact, an ABC News poll reported Monday that, “Ryan also saw a gain among women, a weak group for Romney compared with Obama; favorable views of the choice rose from 19 percent of women last week to 37 percent this weekend. Among men they went from 27 percent previously to a similar 38 percent after the announcement was made.”

It’s quite possible, however, that as more women learn about Ryan’s fiscal policies and past reform proposals, they may change their opinion of Romney’s new running mate. But one thing is for sure, they aren’t likely to be turned off by his biography. Ryan’s father died when he was sixteen, which left his mother to raise him; at his first event as Romney’s vice presidential nominee, his first words were: “Hi Mom!” His wife, Janna, not only hails from a prominent Democratic political family in Oklahoma, but she also was “a former tax attorney, lobbyist and congressional staffer with degrees from Wellesley College and George Washington University Law School” before they were married. She's a woman many women are likely to respect. Along with marrying across the aisle, he’s from a “swing district,” and despite being a devout Catholic and pro-life Republican he’s been characterized by some in the press as “less conservative on social issues.

To the dismay of many Democrats, Ryan’s neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum.

Beyond this, Romney selected a woman, Beth Myers, “a veteran of Massachusetts politics who helped Romney become governor in 2002 [and] is perhaps his most trusted aide,” to head up his vice presidential search, and while she did not weigh-in during the final deliberations about whether to select Ryan, there’s little doubt in my mind that she would publicly come to Ryan’s defense were it deemed necessary by his campaign.

The women’s vote doesn’t exist. But women who vote most certainly do. And, at a minimum, Republican women are sure to vote for the Romney and Ryan ticket.