The war for men: Votes that Obama and Romney can’t take for granted

Amid the intense focus on courting female voters, President Obama and Mitt Romney can’t afford to take the male vote for granted.

Republicans have long held a distinct advantage among men, and Obama is unlikely to win a majority of the male vote in November. But his reelection could hinge on whether he can narrow the gap with Romney, whose lead over Obama among men is approaching double digits, according to two national polls released in May. 

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For Romney, maintaining his lead among male voters could be an insurance policy against his disadvantage among women. Female voters prefer Obama over the former Massachusetts governor by about 15 points, despite visible efforts by Romney’s campaign in recent months to boost his appeal among the fairer sex.

“The most overlooked demographic these days is the one that used to get the most attention: Anglo males,” said Mark McKinnon, who advised President George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. “Everyone has been so focused on targeted slices of voters, we’ve got candidates who appeal to everyone except the most traditional group.”

But strategists for both Romney and Obama could be at a loss as they search for ways for the two men to relate to male voters in an authentic, convincing way.

Bush consistently won out when focus groups were asked in 2004 with which candidate they would rather have a beer, McKinnon said. 

“I’m not sure, at this point in this election, that most guys would want to hoist a cold one with either of the candidates,” he said.

Just a few points among the male electorate could make the difference in battleground states. 

Obama edged Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 49 percent to 48 among male voters in 2008, but his narrow victory was due in large part to overwhelming support from African-American males, who voted in record numbers. 

Among white males, he lost to McCain by 16 points.

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won the female vote, but lost to Bush by more than 10 points among men, according to exit polls, then lost the race. Vice President Gore took less than half of the male vote in 2000, as did President Clinton in 1996.

The good news for Romney, who has been reluctant to put his personal life on display during the race, is that the issue he feels most comfortable addressing is also the top concern among male voters.

“You start with one word: jobs. You end with one word: jobs,” said Doug Schoen, Clinton’s former pollster. “Male voters, particularly as you go down the income scale, are interested in the bottom line: What’s in this for me? Less emotional appeals, more straightforward appeals.”

That’s because even in the modern age, men continue to be the primary breadwinners in most households, pollsters said.

“The economy. Spending. True-blue economic issues,” said Chris Perkins, a GOP pollster.

The Romney and Obama campaigns are already firing on all cylinders on the economy, making it hard for either to play up a pet issue in hopes of moving their numbers among men.

And neither candidate excels at the type of unscripted moments that convey to men — particularly blue-collar men — that he’s one of the guys.

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Romney is unlikely to be spotted behind the wheel of a beat-up pickup, cellphone at his ear as he calls in to a radio show to shoot the breeze about the Red Sox’s new shortstop, as Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) has been known to do.

Similarly, it’s doubtful voters will see Obama with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder, scuffed-up boots tracking mud onto the porch of a ranch, as in Bush’s Texan style.

“For all candidates, and for many men, masculinity is a performance. Some happen to do a better job at it. They have better directors, choreographers and scriptwriters,” said Stephen Ducat, a clinical psychologist and author of The Wimp Factor.

Media outlets devised the term “wimp factor” to describe President George H.W. Bush’s attempts to fight the perception that he lacked the testosterone to call the shots on national security.

Campaigns regularly work to manufacture moments that play up a candidate’s likability and his or her ability to related to the “everyman.”

Sometimes they work. Brown recently sank a half-court shot — on camera, of course — at a campaign event at a youth center, albeit on his fifth attempt.

Other times, they fall awkwardly flat.

Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, thought a photo-op of himself inside a tank could lend him the appearance of a tough guy ready to be commander in chief. But it was Dukakis who tanked. Dukakis looked out of place and nerdy in the helmet, emblazoned with his name, and the stunt was panned widely.

For Obama and Romney, the obstacles to authentic male moments run deep. 

Romney, a Mormon, doesn’t drink, and would look out of place sipping root beer at a bar. He also has no blue-collar background he can relate to voters. His comment in March about having friends who own sports teams created a sense of distance — not familiarity — with male voters.

Obama’s background is as an intellectual and a scholar — vocations that psychologists say are associated with a lack of masculinity. And his preferred sport — basketball — could have unintended political consequences if it accentuates his sense of “otherness,” said Jackson Katz, author of a forthcoming book on masculinity and the presidency.

“It might, in certain circles, emphasize he’s a young guy, in shape, athletic,” said Katz. “But basketball is coded as an urban sport and a black sport.”

For both candidates, the best option might be to accentuate character traits that signal a sense of power and control. Pollsters said men look for candidates who convey authority and an ability to lead — elements on full display as Obama touts his success in nabbing Obama bin Laden.

The premium for those traits is even higher during times of distress, whether fear about the economy or anxiety about the world after 9/11, said Dr. David Reiss, a psychiatrist and expert in political psychology.

“Even if they look like someone who is mean or angry,” Reiss said, “are they the bully who could have my back?”