The Race that Stops the (US) Nation

15 / 11 / 2012

By Sarah Capper

For Australians, the first Tuesday in November is the ‘race that stops a nation’, with the event of a horse race – the Melbourne Cup – no less. For Americans, the first Tuesday in November represents another ‘race that stops a nation’, with this date representing the general elections, and in 2012, the presidential race between the incumbent Democrat Barack Obama, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Obama won the election last week (would someone please tell Fox News?), and while US presidents typically win a second term, what’s interesting about this contest is the influence of women voters – in the debates that preceded the vote, and in exercising their vote.

Years ago, Australian Labor Party numbers man Graham ‘Whatever It Takes’ Richardson acknowledged the importance of the women’s vote, by arguing that whichever major party nabs it, will guarantee themselves government for a long-time. It’s a point worth remembering as Australia looks down the barrel of a federal election to be held in the next 12 months.

And it’s a point that wasn’t lost on American voters in the recent presidential campaign – a campaign which saw the Obama/Biden ticket make a deliberate pitch to women voters, and a campaign which saw women’s reproductive and abortion rights bandied about by conservative forces:

–          In August, Republican Todd Akin said “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He convincingly lost to Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill.

–          Similarly Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock paid for his comments that “even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen”. Mourdock, a Tea-Party favourite, lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly (who, it should be noted, is “morally opposed” to abortion, but supports it in cases of rape, incest and to save a woman’s life).

–          State Treasurer Josh Mandel lost his bid for an Ohio Senate seat to Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown. Mandel refused to condemn Richard Mourdock’s rape comments, but called him a “class act” when Mourdock apologized the following day. Mandel had previously held strong ‘no exception’ abortion views – until as recently as October when he said he would support abortion in the case of saving the life of a mother.

–          In October, Illinois Republican and Tea Partier Joe Walsh said there was never any reason for abortion. “There is no such exception. With modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance,” he said. Walsh, who was also known for not contributing to child support payments, was defeated by Democrat Tammy Duckworth. Following Walsh’s abortion comments, Duckworth told the ‘Daily Beast’ she received a barrage of emails – “I heard from women, old acquaintances, former co-workers who said, ‘This is what you’re up against?’”. Not anymore, Tammy.

Such comments drew widespread condemnation (particularly in the case of Akin), sparking furious debate on all levels, at the very least on why it’s not sensible to preface the word ‘rape’ with ‘legitimate’, and in rubbing salt into an already emotional abortion debate, typically (and frustratingly) dominated by white male conservative politicians.

Since the poll, even former George Bush advisor Karen Hughes, issued this warning: “If another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue. The college-age daughters of many of my friends voted for Obama because they were completely turned off by Neanderthal comments like the suggestion of “legitimate rape.””

Hughes, like many, recognized the Democrat wins in Indiana and Missouri as significant. As Greg Jaffe wrote in the Washington Post following the poll:

The remarks [by Akin and Mourdock] turned the two races into touchstones in this year’s gender battles. The results, in states that the Republicans had long counted on, helped ensure they would not win the four seats needed to retake the Senate majority from Democrats.”

Fair pay for women, was also an issue in 2012 (yes, in 2012, sigh). One of the first pieces of legislation Obama enacted as President was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, which paves the way for better enabling wage discrimination cases.

During the second presidential debate this year, the President pulled up Mitt Romney on his commitment to supporting the Bill.

As Pulizer Prize Winning website ‘Politifact’ notes (which includes a ‘Truth-O-Meter’), Obama was “sort of” correct in his attack, but clarified that while “Romney [has previously refused] to say whether he would have signed the bill into law … he also said he has “no intention of changing that law.””.

The signing of the Lilly Ledbetter law is given prominence on the President’s website under the webpage heading of “Equal Rights”, differentiating Obama’s stance on a raft of social justice issues – including the repealing of ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ for gays in the military, and on supporting same sex marriage rights. Issues which, with the help of the website, voters could clearly see differences with the Romney campaign.

Similarly the Obama/Biden website has a specific page for women, where it puts the focus on reproductive rights and the President’s Healthcare package (which includes contraceptive services) as being wins for women.

The ‘votes for women’ campaign kicked off earlier this year, with a slick video posted by the President around the time of International Women’s Day in March. The video is narrated by feminist Gloria Steinem, who is crystal clear in her support for Obama, declaring: “From his personal life, who he married, how he treats his daughters, he understands that women are absolutely, full-human beings.”

The Obama camp also enlisted a raft of celebrities from different ethnic backgrounds, presumably to shore up specific areas of support within the community for the Democrats.

The special targeting by the President seems to have paid off, in terms of both voter support, and in electing record levels of women to high office (in New Hampshire alone voters elected women to all key positions), and in electing non-white males (it is the first time in history House Democrats do not have a white male majority).

The Center for American Women and Politics analysed exit polls to show that in seven key contests, women “cast their ballots for the winning Democrat candidate”.

The Center also compared statistics between elections, noting some subtle but key differences between men and women voters:

“Obama won about the same proportion of women voters in 2012 (55 percent) as he won 2008 (54 percent). Romney’s support among women voters in 2012 (44 percent) was about the same as women’s support for Senator John McCain in 2008 (43 percent). What was different this year was that Romney fared much better among men (52 percent) than McCain did in 2008 (48 percent).”

The Center noted that while Romney won the majority of white women votes overall (56%), “a gender gap was clearly apparent among white voters” (42% white women – 35% white men voted for Obama).

But unlike white women, the Center reported that “majorities of both black women and Latinas voted for Obama. However, as with the vote among whites, a gender gap was apparent for both blacks (96% of women versus 87% of men voted for Obama) and Latinos (76% of women versus 65% of men voted for Obama).”

In an article by the BBC’s Kate Dailey, Gail L Kitch from the Voter Participation Center made a distinction between married and unmarried women voters, the latter of which now outnumbers the former, and who, along with people of colour and young people are called the ‘Rising American Electorate’ (RAE).

Unmarried women, who Kitch says are the “largest component” of the RAE and now represent 23% of the electorate, “overwhelmingly” supported Obama (67-31), while more married women supported Mitt Romney (53-46).

While Romney’s pitch to women voters centered on creating a strong economy and the flow on effect of boosting women’s participation in the workforce, in the same BBC article pollster Norm Ornstein notes this is not enough – with women voters also concerned about a “strong social safety net if things go wrong”.

Kitch told the BBC, “It’s all the same issues, but it’s how you talk about it that matters,” which may provide some lessons for Australian politicians in the lead-up to next year’s federal election.

Just ask former Howard Government Minister Alexander Downer. While Opposition leader in 1996, Downer tried to make a play on words to the party slogan ‘the things that matter’, joking (badly) that the Coalition’s domestic violence policy should be called, “the things that batter”.

The debate which followed offensive comments from American conservatives about women’s reproductive rights had been previously dismissed by some as being ‘irrelevant’ and a distraction from the major election issues.

Similarly the debate following the Australian Prime Minister’s misogyny speech has been dismissed as such.

But if there’s any lesson to be learnt from the US election, it is that both words and actions concerning women matter, that such issues resonate – not just to women voters, but to the electorate-at-large.

An elegant take on this comes from the new Senator for Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren.  In a debate with (now former) Republican Senator Scott Brown, Warren explained that along with the right rhetoric, decisions  made while representing women voters are paramount. Watch the powerful video here, or see below to read what she said:


I have no doubt that Senator Brown is a good husband, and a good father to his daughters, but this is an issue that affects all of our daughters, and our granddaughters, and what matters here, is how Senator Brown votes.

 He’s gone to Washington – and he’s had some good votes – but he’s had exactly one chance to vote up for equal pay for equal work, and he voted no.

 He had exactly one chance to vote for insurance coverage for birth control, and other preventive services for women. He voted no.

 And he had exactly one chance to vote for a pro-choice woman from Massachusetts to the United States Supreme Court, and he voted no. Those are bad votes for women.

The women of Massachusetts need a Senator they can count on, not some of the time, but all of the time. I want to go to Washington to be there for all of our daughters, and all of our granddaughters. This one really matters, there’s a lot at stake here.