In the 2010 election, women made history. Since the advent of exit polling data in 1982, women voters have consistently favored Democrats. Not this time. For the first time, women voters preferred the GOP. A rather shocking occurrence given just two short years ago, President Obama had a 14 point advantage with women.
Here’s what is at stake: women voters have decided almost every presidential elections since 1960. The Republican Party has a historic opportunity to win over this block, all but ensuring a presidential victory in 2012. But, will the GOP be able to capitalize and transform itself into an inclusive ‘women-friendly’ party? Or, will they blow it by embracing a caricature of themselves: a bunch of white guys fighting it out for power?
The shift in women voters comes largely from the Democratic Party’s bitter primary battle in 2008. Wounds have still not healed. President Obama’s tone-deafness to the wishes of the American people on policy issues is all the more palpable to Democratic (and formerly Democratic) women. We were told, straight up, when Hilary dropped out: Get over it! Since then, here is Obama’s outreach to Hillary Clinton supporters:
Under Obama’s leadership, the Democratic Party remains fractured. In 2008, Democratic women had a rude awakening: gender equality was no longer a core tenet of the DNC. And so, women increasingly became free agents. The operative question now: what is the trajectory of women’s exit if Obama is on the ticket in 2012? The GOP will have a big say in that!
The Republican Party, perhaps unwittingly, has become decidedly more pro-women in 2010. Sarah Palin can take credit for much progress here. Not only has Palin endorsed and elevated women in the GOP, she also continually speaks out and defends them from sexism. Conservative women (and some men) in the media like Michelle Malkin, Dana Perino and Ann Coulter have also been voracious in their defense of women in their party.
Additionally, the GOP wisely steered clear of social issues in 2010. Smart move. An ever growing majority of women no longer view abortion rights as a central women’s issue. Increasingly, economic security has taken its place. Which is why the GOP is well served by putting this former litmus test issue to rest where it belongs.
The challenge now for the GOP is to evolve. They’ve set the pace in 2010 by being the party of the first woman governors in South Carolina, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Further, the party of the country’s first Indian-American woman governor, and New Mexico’s first elected Latina governor. Now, the real challenge begins.
As Representative Boehner becomes Speaker of the House, will he surround himself with a bunch of white guys, taking his party backwards? The old ‘boys’ club’ trap into which Representative Cantor carelessly stumbled when he told FOX News anchor Chris Wallace: “We’ve had a history of working together.” Or will Representative Boehner embrace the gender balance and diversity so rich and fresh to our country in 2010, and take the Republican Party forward?
The power is with the GOP now. Reinvent, evolve and own 2012. Else, send women running back to the security of hope.
Amy Siskind is the President and Co-Founder of The New Agenda, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls.