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Mitt Romney and the Women Who Don't Love Him

Why the presumptive GOP nominee has zero game with female voters, explained.

| Fri May 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Mitt Romney has a particular effect on voters of the opposite sex—and it's not a good one. During the heated final days of the GOP primary, female Republicans in many states favored Rick Santorum. Romney's dismal luck with the ladies was more apparent in April, when, according to a Washington Post poll, he was trailing President Barack Obama among women voters by 19 percentage points. Romney's female appeal hasn't improved much in the past month. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week still puts him 15 points behind Obama.

His numbers are particularly dismal among single gals. While Romney leads Obama among married women by about 9 points, Obama blows him away among single women by 36 points. This matters: There are 55 million single women in the United States. If they got motivated, they are a big enough block to swing the election.

The Romney campaign has responded to the candidate's female voter problem by deploying Ann Romney and putting the candidate on the stump with high-profile Republican women including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. It has also been prominently touting his recent endorsement by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who proclaimed Romney "the better choice for women." He's been peppering his stump speeches with stories of women he's met on the campaign trail (people like "Woman Whose Husband Took an Upholstery Class," as the AP dubbed her, because the Romney campaign has failed to actually identify any of these women). And recently the Romney campaign tried to take Barack Obama down a peg with women by insisting (falsely) that the majority of jobs lost during the recession were lost by women.

Republicans writ large have had problems with female voters for two decades: George H.W. Bush won the female vote in 1988 and lost it (and the election) in 1992. Bob Dole lost women voters by 16 points in 1996. And George W. Bush lost by 11 points in 2000 and 3 points in 2004. But Romney's problem with women seems to go deeper than that of the average Republican candidate. Consider this: Romney has never netted a majority of women voters during any of his political races, even when he won.

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In 2002, Romney won the governorship in Massachusetts largely by winning over men, who voted for him by 13 points over the Democrat. Romney lost the women's vote by 4 points. The gender gap that year was the largest in that state since 1990, when William Weld became Massachusetts’ first GOP governor since 1975—largely thanks to the support of women voters. In 1994, when Romney ran for the Senate against incumbent Sen. Ted Kennedy, female voters picked Kennedy over Romney by 24 points.

There were unique factors in all of these races. Kennedy, a pro-choice and equal rights champion, was a legend in a Democratic state; Romney ran against a woman in the 2002 governor's race. But in 2008, he lost the women's vote in the GOP primary to Sen. John McCain (who then lost women voters to Obama by 13 points).

Romney’s performance in the GOP primary this year suggests that his gender deficit is an enduring one. Not only did Romney lose the women’s vote in many states to the ultra-conservative Santorum, but Newt Gingrich bested him among women in South Carolina—and that was after Gingrich's second wife dropped the bombshell that her former husband had once asked her to have an "open marriage."

"Of all the environments that he's electively joined, women are, if not structurally excluded from leadership, they are historically excluded," observes Joanna Brooks.

Parsing just what it is that women don't like about the presumptive GOP nominee isn't easy because Romney, as you may have heard, is a bit of a social clunker. (Remember the "Who let the dogs out?" incident?) He strikes people in all walks of life as kind of awkward. But judging from the polls, men seem willing to overlook his goofy sense of humor, the fake butt-pinching episode, and the odd social interactions. Many women, though, seem to experience a dislike that can't be explained solely by his (current) policy positions, which aren't much different from those of other Republicans.

The clues to Romney's women problem may lie in his personal history. His mother, a former Hollywood starlet, ran for the Senate herself. He also has two sisters; one of them, Jane, is an actress and a Democrat who has been called the "Billy Carter" of the family.) But at 12 and 9 years older than Romney, his sisters weren't around the house to influence him in adolescence in a way they might have if they were closer in age. For the most part, his life has been characterized by his involvement in a string of virtually all-male or heavily male-dominated institutions. "Of most of the environments that he's electively joined, women are, if not structurally excluded from leadership, they are historically excluded," observes Joanna Brooks, a senior correspondent at Religion Dispatches and a Mormon feminist who's been studying Romney for years.

Romney’s professional life was spent in the sausage fest of high finance and politics. That's true of lots of men, especially rich ones who enter politics. But Romney is also steeped in a religious culture in which gender roles historically have been rigidly segregated and in which men and women operate in distinctly different spheres. His role in the male-dominated Mormon church has gone far beyond spending some time in the pews every Sunday. Romney was groomed from an early age to assume responsibility as a leader in the LDS church.

Within the Mormon church, laymen (and only men) are vested with considerable power, unlike, say, the Catholic Church, which is also male dominated but which has professional clergy. Male lay members serve as the Mormon church's spiritual leaders. In that role, men like Romney are charged with counseling the faithful and laying down church law within their flocks, a job that has traditionally included trying to enforce the church's strict vision of gender roles.

Brooks notes that it's not unusual among Mormon men of his generation to have difficulties relating to women as equals in the professional world. She explains that they came of age at a time when the church openly opposed the women's movement, which presented a significant challenge to a church whose theological and cultural logic is organized around strongly defined gender roles. As a result, she says, Mormon men of that era sometimes seem to have the sense that "there is no proper way to engage with women as adult equals."

After attending an all-boys prep school in Michigan and then spending a year at Stanford, Romney, like most Mormon men, spent almost three years cloistered with other young men as a missionary. He was dispatched to France, where female missionaries were present in small numbers but dating was strictly verboten. Mission counselors urge their young charges to marry quickly upon returning home, a reflection of the church's emphasis on marriage, its strict ban on premarital sex, and its emphasis on chastity. In Romney's case, within three months of returning from his mission he married the girl he'd pledged to wed while in high school.

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