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Female voters could be a problem for Santorum in general-election contest

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has made a lot of gains since his sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri last week, but he does have a vulnerability that’s just starting to emerge — his lack of appeal to women.

And that’s a problem that could plague him in the general election, should he win the GOP nomination.

The controversy over whether Catholic-affiliated organizations should provide birth control coverage in their healthcare plans gives a clear example. Santorum has made the Obama administration’s mandate a major issue in the primary — one that’s helped him consolidate evangelicals behind his candidacy. 

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But the general election is entirely different terrain for him. A Fox News poll shows that 67 percent of women think that employers should be required to offer birth control, and 29 percent of women think they shouldn’t. 

When you break down the numbers, it’s clear why the issue wouldn’t hurt Santorum in a primary but could in a general election. Republicans disapprove of the administration’s position on contraceptives by 18 percent, while the independents, who usually decide general elections, favor it by 24 percent.

Abortion is another flashpoint with women and independents. According to a Pew study released last year, 58 percent of all independents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

Santorum is entirely on the conservative side of the ledger there and has been one of the anti-abortion-rights movement’s most vocal spokesmen. The Sunlight Foundation found that during his time in the Senate, he used abortion-related terms more than any other senator, and ideologically, he takes the most conservative of positions, opposing the procedure even in cases of rape.


The former senator also provoked controversy for his views on women in the workplace. In his book, It Takes a Family, he writes that “radical feminists” have “succeeded in undermining the traditional family” by convincing women “that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.”  

On Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pressed Santorum on similar passages from his book and asked: “What do you say to those who believe that those kind of comments are going to alienate women [and] make you an easier candidate to beat in a general election?”

In his response, Santorum said people should “have equal opportunity to rise in the workforce” and that he thought women should be “affirmed for the choices they make” — whether that is working outside the home or staying at home.

There’s evidence that Santorum might already be suffering with women, although there’s no definitive answer as to why.

The most relevant numbers come from American Research Group’s recent poll of Michigan. Rick Santorum leads Mitt Romney by 16 points among men, but women prefer Romney by 6 points. That makes for a 22 point gender gap. 

That favors Santorum — for now. ARG expects that only 45 percent of likely primary voters will be female. But women will be far more important in the general election. According to a CNN exit poll, 54 percent of the voting electorate in the 2008 general election was female, and women favored Obama by 22 points.

In order to make Michigan competitive again, the Republican nominee has to cut into that advantage. Based on his poor polling with women in the primary, it’s unclear whether Santorum can do it. To be sure, the Michigan survey could be an outlier, and with his lead so new, it’s difficult to determine why there’s such a big gender gap, but it’s one that Romney might be ready to exploit.

Last week, Santorum questioned the wisdom of women serving in front-line combat — seeming to suggest women are too “emotional” to serve (he later clarified he thought men would be too emotional about it). A critical Romney surrogate, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, immediately pounced, pointing out that his daughter was a platoon leader and “was in some risky situations, and yet endured and led.”

If that had been an isolated comment, it might have been a coincidence, but it seems as if something more coordinated is at work. 

During his address at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday McDonnell seemed to jab Santorum when he talked about his daughter serving in harm’s way. “Yes, I did get emotional — but she didn’t,” he said.

The conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru noted, ironically, that McDonnell was getting to the left of even Obama on the issue, and indeed, this raises a fascinating possibility.

When Romney pulverized Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, he did it through a relentless attack on the their conservative credentials. The goal was to make each seem as moderate as Romney himself, and to that end, he largely succeeded.

But Romney might try a different tack with Santorum.

Since last Tuesday, Romney has largely hit him for being a Washington insider with a penchant for earmarks, but so far, it hasn’t seemed to do much damage. Voters still seem to think Santorum is more conservative. That opens a different possible attack for Romney. His campaign can argue that, sure, Santorum is more conservative, but guess what — he’s too conservative to win a general election, and his views on women’s issues are the supreme example of it.

It would be a risky strategy for Romney. After all, primaries aren’t decided by independent female voters but by women and Republicans who want to beat Obama — and the Romney team might be ready to make more explicit overtures to them. 


Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com

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