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Poll finds Republicans still struggling with women voters

A year-and-a-half after the RNC released a post-election review calling for greater inclusion, a new report shows the GOP still has work to do with women.
A woman holds a handmade campaign sign during the 2012 RNC on August 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
A woman holds a handmade campaign sign during the 2012 RNC on August 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.

A year-and-a-half after the Republican National Committee released a comprehensive post-election review calling for greater inclusion, a new report shows the GOP still has work to do with women.

Female voters view the Republican Party as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion,” and “stuck in the past,” according to an internal report commissioned by the American Action Network and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. POLITICO was given exclusive access to the study, entitled “Republicans and Women Voters: Huge Challenges, Real Opportunities.”

Based on research from eight focus groups and a poll of 800 registered female voters, which was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Axis Research, the report concluded that Republicans “fail to speak to women in the different circumstances in which they live,” leaving many women “barley receptive” to the GOP’s policies. Forty-nine percent of women view Republicans unfavorably, compared to 39% who view Democrats unfavorably.

RNC Chair Reince Priebus tried to do some damage control on Thursday, telling msnbc host Chuck Todd that neither “party can do a victory lap here.”

“The poll’s gist wasn’t, ‘Oh, the Republicans are stuck in the past,’” he said. “The gist of the poll was, 50% of women are saying they have a negative view of the Republican Party and 40% of the women are saying they have a negative view of the Democratic Party.”

But any way you spin it, the message is clear: Republicans haven’t done enough to close the gender gap that’s plagued their party since the Reagan Administration. And that could spell trouble for their hopes to take over the Senate in November and win the White House in 2016 -- especially if Hillary Clinton throws her hat into the ring.

“This is a ‘good news’ story for the Democrats -- period,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. “It becomes even more of an issue if Hillary Clinton is running for president. She will mobilize women to be engaged.”

Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. With the gender gap, the GOP can certainly cross that one off the list, having published a comprehensive “autopsy” report last year that prioritized female voters, who chose President Obama over Mitt Romney 56% to 44%.

But if recovering the women’s vote -- and in turn, the White House -- involves its own 12-step program, it’s steps two through 12 that pose a bit more of a challenge for the GOP.

“They seem to understand the problem, at least on a national level,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, referring to the RNC’s 2012 report. “But they seem to think this problem is simply one of tone and messaging.”

”It goes way beyond,” she continued. “It’s a problem of policy.”

The Crossroads/American Action Network report hinted at that point, at least when it comes to Republican opposition toward pay-equity legislation. In April, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would (among other provisions) bar retaliation against an employee for inquiring about a coworker’s wages, failed to advance in the Senate. Despite 52 co-sponsors, the measure could not get a single Republican vote.

“[Women] believe that ‘enforcing equal pay for equal work’ is the policy that would ‘help women the most,’” concluded the Crossroads GPS/American Action Network report. “Republicans who openly deny the legitimacy of the issue will be seen as out of touch with women’s life experiences.”

Yet the report’s three-pronged prescription to closing the gender gap leaned heavily toward repackaging the GOP’s policies, not changing the contents. First among its solutions was to “neutralize the Democrat's’” attack that Republicans oppose fairness for women. Next up, the report suggested Republicans “deal honestly with any disagreement on abortion, then move to other issues.” The third fix: “pursue policy innovations that inspire women voters to give the GOP a ‘fresh look,’” such as job-training programs, protections against gender bias in the workplace, and an expansion of home health-care services.

Missy Shorey, executive director of the conservative PAC Maggie’s List, thinks the messaging strategy is the way to go if the GOP wants to pull more female votes.

“The most important thing that Republicans need to do is to start talking about our strengths in a way that connects with women,” said Shorey. “Unfortunately, many of our guys are tone deaf.”

For Shorey, a big part of that solution hinges on getting more Republican women elected. According to CAWP, women make up 8.3% of the Republican caucuses in Congress, compared to 30.2% of the Democratic caucuses.

While running more female candidates is certainly important for the GOP’s future, said CAWP’s Debbie Walsh, she believes it won’t be enough to solve the party’s problem with women.

“It’s not about the gender of the candidates,” said Walsh of the GOP’s decades-long struggle to attract female voters. “It is connected in large part to the fact that women feel more economically vulnerable than men, and therefore, have a different take on the role government should be playing about economic issues.”

“I think it’s going to take shifts in policy, or at least some compromises to pull more women to the GOP,” she said.