Women, particularly political independents, don’t like Rush Limbaugh. That was the finding of a poll released last week by Public Policy Polling. It reported that while 56 percent of men had a favorable opinion of Rush, just 37 percent of women did. Nearly half of women had an unfavorable opinion of the conservative radio phenomenon. The total gender gap was a whopping 31 points.
Rush dedicated part of his show last week to a “women’s summit,” in which women callers offered their perspective on why such a gap might exist and what the host might do to boost his popularity. The callers had plenty of advice—most of which had to do with Rush’s famous, tongue-in-cheek bombast and willingness to buck political correctness. Rush stated empathetically he isn’t going to change who he is or what makes his show such a success.
Hallelujah to that. There's no reason for the nation’s most successful radio host to worry about reaching female moderates and Democrats. Even from the broad perspective of the conservative movement, Rush’s greatest strength is his ability to educate his audience about political philosophy and key policy issues, and to rally the troops. Without a doubt, many open-minded women (and men) have had their minds changed by Rush. Making his show more milquetoast and less entertaining in the hopes of converting a few liberal ladies would be counterproductive, to say the least.
It’s a different story for conservatism writ large. Supporters of limited government and their elected representatives do need to find ways to build support among women. This doesn’t require changing any fundamentals, but does mean understanding how to talk about issues in ways women connect with.
Democrats excel at this, particularly in appealing to women’s fears. Last year, for example, Sen. Kennedy highlighted polling data showing women were more worried about the economy. He claimed women are disproportionately affected by economic downturns and, naturally, need bigger government to help them. Yet a closer look at the poll told a different story. Yes, women were more concerned in 2008 about the economy; but a survey from the previous year showed they were more concerned then too. And women weren’t just more concerned about the economy. The poll found women worried more than men about health care, crime, the environment, drug use, a possible terrorist attack, unemployment, and hunger/homelessness.
In other words, women worry more than men about everything. This should come as no surprise: just about anyone who has a mother or wife could tell you women fret about things men don't even notice.
Yet this is important for conservatives to keep in mind. Women simply place a higher premium on security and safety than men do. Women are more often involved in the day-to-day care of vulnerable members of society including children, the elderly, and the sick. They worry more about the bottom-line and are more concerned about avoiding big downsides than they are about maximizing upsides.
That means when conservatives talk about economic issues, we can’t just speak about generating prosperity. We have to also talk about how wealth creation bolsters financial security and explain how growth helps the least well off. Women, even those who are financially secure, tend to think about tragedies that could place their families in peril. Democrats prey on this tendency, while conservatives too often ignore it.
Conservatives have a compelling case to make since big government is often the enemy of financial security. At every turn, it seems, Washington undermines the institutions that actually provide women with the greatest safety and support. The pre-1996 federal welfare system, which the Democrat-controlled Congress is gradually bringing back, provided women with children with subsistence, but discouraged marriages and intact families. Today, social policy scholars from the Left and the Right agree that stable families are the most effective mechanism for preventing poverty and encouraging lifetime success. The existence, or lack thereof, of an intact family has become the dividing line between the haves and the have nots. Undoubtedly the federal welfare system, by undermining civil society and the family, ultimately made women less secure.
Women are also open to arguments about how intrusive government labor laws backfire on women. While the media tends to characterize any requirement on employers to provide new benefits as a boon to women, such mandates raise the cost of employment, deter job creation, and discourage the kinds of flexible job arrangements women crave. Rhetoric about liberty and growth is, unfortunately, not enough. Conservatives must explain clearly how employer mandates directly harm women.
The siren song of big government has superficial appeal to women who crave security. Ultimately, though, it exacts big costs—many of which are disproportionately borne by women. Conservatives have a compelling story about how limited government and free markets create greater financial security in addition to dynamism and growth. We just need a more tailored pitch.