What Women Want: New Research Gives GOP Honest Feedback For 2016

Female voters in swing states see the Democrats’ “war on women” narrative as political posturing, and they’re more interested in policy substance, according to new research by Christine Matthews of Burning Glass Consulting and Kristen Soltis Anderson at Echelon Insights.

But Republicans have no reason to celebrate. Both Matthews and Anderson found that many of these women aren’t convinced the GOP could offer much better.

“When Democrats cry ‘war on women,’ most women think it’s just politics,” Anderson said. “But few women think that Republicans understand their lives and challenges.”

Matthews and Anderson each conducted independent polling and focus group research. They found, by and large, that Republicans have an “empathy problem.” Too often, their research showed, Republicans speak in abstract, macroeconomic policy terms instead of relatable, kitchen-table terms.

“Many women — and most Republican women — reject the idea of a ‘war on women.’ We have learned that this is more of a political phrase than a real world term,” Matthews explained. “The challenge for Republicans is to ‘win’ on those important economic issues by talking about them in ways that are fresh, relevant and compelling.”

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Source: Echelon Insights

Mathews said communication problems keep Republicans from connecting with women voters, who perceive the GOP as out of touch and too heavily focused on social wedge issues and not interested in collaborating to solve problems.

Matthews pointed to Republicans’ recent efforts to defund Planned Parenthood as a risky strategy that’s like to alienate swing voters or “soft” Republican women.

“They would support an investigation, but none of the women in our focus groups said – even after watching videos – that the organization should be defunded,” she said.

The Planned Parenthood may also point to a broader problem for the GOP, Matthews said. “The Republican brand is perceived as dated,” she said. “The party and elected officials are seen as failing to keep pace with change and the reality of the modern world.” Many of them see Republicans as embodying “1950s attitudes.”

Matthews and Anderson spoke to women this summer in Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia. Both said they found the need for more approachable, diverse, high-profile GOP women to improve the party’s brand.

“Showcase Republican women in an unscripted or casual format,” Anderson said. “Both times testing footage of Republican women delivering prepared remarks generally left respondents unmoved. However, a video of Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) speaking about the heroin epidemic was very well received in the New Hampshire groups because the topic was one that spoke to their real-life concerns and the language [and] tone were far warmer.”

“Break down stereotypes,” Anderson advised. “Women want to see other women who look like them in terms of family and economic status, not just women from the ‘white picket fence’ lifestyle.”

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Source: Burning Glass Consulting

Matthews said women voters have a sense that “c-suite” Republicans don’t understand average people’s lives in any meaningful way — “how bad things can happen to good people, which then requires assistance and understanding, not judgment.”

“Women aren’t hearing Republicans talk about many of the things they care about: making college more affordable, pre-K for all, finding a way to pay for child-care costs, and making health care more affordable, but not just repealing Obamacare,” she explained.

Anderson said women told her they want politicians to work on policies that help enhance peace of mind, a feeling of accomplishment and the ability to spend more quality time with loved ones. She said one woman summed up her constant feelings of economic instability this way: “You work to make money to spend time to do things with your family but you’re always at work so you don’t have time to spend with your family.”

Anderson’s research found that women of all ages and parties do believe that the pay gap does exist. However, she found that women also worried new laws addressing equal pay or mandating sick and maternity leave would hurt small business and would cause debt and spending problems.

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While women in Anderson’s research believe in a gender pay gap, an area where Republicans may have an entry point is to improve enforcement of existing laws against discrimination and thus illustrate how they are champions of equality.

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Source: Echelon Insights

Healthcare was a top issue for women in Matthews’ research groups. She found they generally do not support either extreme — either keeping Obamacare untouched or repealing it completely.

She reported a general sense that, “You can’t replace something with nothing. The key is to show a viable GOP alternative that includes pre-existing conditions and expanded coverage at a more affordable price with more personal choice — such as whether or not to have insurance.”  

Outside the GOP base, Matthews noted, the “repeal Obamacare” rhetoric falls short.

“In 2014, swing women grew tired of ‘repeal Obamacare,’ which they found unrealistic,” she said. “The women in this survey want a fix, not repeal.”

On immigration, Matthews reported that the idea of mass deportation “is viewed as ridiculous.” However, she said that if Republicans nominate someone with a practical plan to deal with undocumented immigrants via a lengthy and earned path to legal status, “this issue is unlikely to alienate these women.”

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Source: Echelon Insights

Anderson found many areas of opportunity for Republicans, including reforming healthcare, school choice, expanding access to over-the-counter birth control, reining in top-down educational approaches such as Common Core, and expanding the earned income tax credit.

“Stay positive,” Anderson advised. “In the messages we tested, whenever the message would take a turn for the more partisan or negative, it would get tuned out.”

So what do women really want?

“Women want to feel like someone in politics or Washington understands what it’s like in their shoes,” she said.

“Most respondents, for completely understandable reasons, viewed politicians as out-of-touch, protected in a bubble, and without any of the economic concerns facing most Americans,” Anderson added. “When politicians use well-worn talking points to make ideological points, it seems like politics as usual.”

“A simple acknowledgment of real-world concerns,” she said, “could go a long way.”

Carrie Sheffield is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.