Mitt Romney’s trying to talk his way out of his gender gap, but, take it from me, women like guys who listen. My wife told me that.
Since the Romneys’ long marriage appears to be quite strong, he probably knows the value of being a good listener, too. Unfortunately, his speaking style doesn’t display much of it on the campaign trail.
Listening matters. As important as policy may be, voters tend to choose the candidate they think, most of all, is “on my side.” They want someone who connects with them, who conveys an understanding of their hopes and dreams.
That’s why recent presidents like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, whatever else you think of them, always seemed to have their big ears on when talking to people. Listening leads to a level of connection and understanding that voters, among others, appreciate.
By that standard, I used to think that Romney, the seasoned businessman and former Massachusetts governor, might well have an advantage. President Barack Obama looked by contrast like a loner who had to remind himself to look less professorial and more warm and fuzzy.
Yet it is Romney who has habitually stepped on his own campaign victories with gaffes and a persistent awkwardness about his own wealth and political beliefs.
Unlike George W. Bush’s folksy “I hear you,” or Bill Clinton’s empathetic “I feel your pain,” Romney’s delivery tends to sound about as engaging as a CEO’s annual report to stockholders.
I believe that helps to explain why a new ABC News/Washington Post poll that asks which man “better understands the economic problems people in this country are having,” gives the edge to Obama — 49 percent to Romney’s 37 percent.
Among women, Obama scores 20 points over Romney on this empathy question, up three points since a February survey. That tends to match the widening gender gap between the two candidates in other recent polls.
The partisan gender gap is not new. Men have been voting mostly Republican and women mostly Democratic for more than 30 years. But the gap suddenly yawned open into a canyon in the past couple of months.
A Pew Research Center poll has the former Massachusetts governor trailing President Barack Obama by 20 points among women voters for the second month in a row — and the two are virtually tied among men.
The latest Gallup/USA Today poll found Romney trailing the president by 9 points among women in battleground states in March – and by 2-to-1 among women under age 50 – after a virtual tie a month earlier.
Why? Conventional wisdom blames a string of debates and controversies about birth control and related social issues, pushed heavily by former Sen. Rick Santorum before he suspended his campaign. Much to the delight of Democrats, social issues of particular importance to women often have crowded out the economic issues on which Obama is more vulnerable.
As Romney looks increasingly as if he will be the Grand Old Party’s nominee, he faces the same challenge that dogged Sen. John McCain four years ago: How do you hold onto the party’s skeptical conservative base while reaching out to attract swing voters and closing the gender gap? McCain answered that challenge by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. That didn’t work out so great. McCain lost the election — and the pantheon of TV punditry gained a new right-wing superstar.
Romney’s awkwardness about equity for women showed itself when a reporter asked for his thoughts on the all-male Augusta National Golf Club. Obama had just called for the club, which is the home of the Masters golf tournament, to accept women as members.
Romney agreed, but with an awkward response so loaded with qualifying “ifs” that it sounded like an insurance contract: “Certainly, if I were a member, if I could run Augusta, which isn’t likely to happen, of course I’d have women into Augusta,” Romney said. I think that was a “yes.”
Romney often sounds as if he could use what President George H.W. Bush used to call “the vision thing.” It calls for more than balanced budgets. It begins with a strong inner desire to repair the nation’s divisions and revive our sense of shared values and common purpose. Women appreciate that. Men do, too.