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Democrats and Republicans haven’t figured out how to talk to women

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If you were watching “Meet the Press” a few weeks ago, you might have seen a new face – and I don’t mean Chuck Todd.

In the middle of the broadcast there was a paid political ad, likely designed to reach the political decision-makers who watch these shows.

A feisty woman speaks directly to the camera: “My gender? Really? That’s all you got?” she asks. “This war on women: If you think that’s gonna get my vote, you’re as dumb as those people making these political ads.”

That blunt assessment gave Democrats and Republicans the comeuppance they deserve. The message: Politicians are out of touch with women voters.

On the one hand, this is not surprising. Politicians are out of touch with most people. It partly explains why former White House political director Doug Sosnik warned recently that it is difficult to overstate the depth of the anger and alienation that a majority of all Americans feel toward government. Politicians just don’t get it.

Yet, it is mind-boggling because women’s importance to both parties is at an all-time high: At 53 percent, most voters are women, and they vote at a higher rate than men. Wouldn’t you think politicians would figure out how to talk with them?

Women have reason to be frustrated, because Democrats and Republicans alike use stale, marginalizing and condescending messages for women. Democrats are still using fear tactics about reproductive rights, and Republicans still mostly use men to speak to women. Both parties are stuck in a “Mad Men” episode, far removed from the realities of how modern women live and think.

Veteran strategists agree that the messaging may be off target from what’s on most women’s minds these days.

Katie Packer Gage, Mitt Romney’s former deputy campaign manager, calls the Democrats’ particular emphasis on gender the “the body parts” strategy.

The founding partner of Burning Glass, which may be the nation’s first media firm focused on helping Republicans with female voters, Gage says the ads provoke fear, painting the pro-life male candidate as a “cave man” and suggesting that this Neanderthal will do the same thing with your pocketbook and schools, health care and the climate as he does with your body.

“Women get communicated to with fear on the fringes,” Gage says.

Gale Kaufman, a respected Democratic political strategist, largely agrees.

“It’s the case you make when you can’t talk about what’s really going on. If you can’t explain why we can’t get on top of things – why Congress isn’t in session dealing with ISIS, why so much is gruesome and horrible and is not working, then you talk about things you can at least deal with in a political campaign. It’s the only thing anyone really knows how to do. You scare them or you give them hope.”

And the country is riddled with body part strategies. Almost every TV spot for the Democrats in the Colorado Senate race – even one by the energy-focused group NextGen Climate – mentions abortion or contraceptives. In response, you have the Republican male candidate spending millions on his own “contraceptive ads” to prove he is not scary. As Slate’s John Dickerson put it, “Ground Zero for Colorado might be ground zero for this strategy in 2014.”

Similar birth control tit-for-tats are playing out in Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and New Hampshire – all toss-up states that could determine control of the Senate.

These miscues are even more shocking when you think about how much we know about women voters today.

This year’s “Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink” reported that 1 in 3 American women lives paycheck to paycheck. Most of these 42 million women are white and, yes, working, and tens of millions are single parents and/or caregiving for aging parents. Do they even have time to vote? It’s not a priority, unless they think the outcome will make a difference in their lives at home and on the job. In fact, a study I previously wrote about estimated that more than 10 million unmarried women will not vote this November.

Yes, voters should know how candidates stand on the hard-fought and fiercely defended issue of reproductive rights. But making his the central issue of this election is manipulative and wildly off the mark. The most commonly shared story in our country today is the financial insecurity of American families. Women are at the epicenter of that story. With more women working, caretaking and driving the economy, women care more about issues like equal pay, affordable child care, sick leave, good schools and health care.

Not to mention security issues. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe events in the United States are “out of control” because of threats of Ebola, terrorism, security breakdowns at the White House and the failure of government institutions.

With all of this, why, then, are political campaigns reverting to the fight over contraceptives to reach women voters, rather than economic and security issues that drive conversations at their kitchen tables?

No question the body-parts strategy can be effective. In the 2013 Virginia governor’s race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the unmarried women’s vote by an astounding 42 percentage points. He did it by stressing reproductive rights and the “Republican war on women.”

But is it a good long-term investment in your relationship with women to throw the “choice” grenade into the battle when so many other critical issues are on their minds? Is it fear that binds women to their party, or is it hope for progress and getting things done?

These potential message mistakes may be compounded on the right, where the GOP has too few women persuading other women to vote. With a few exceptions – such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the No. 4 House Republican – there is little policy leadership by congressional Republican women, compared with the Democrats, who have leaders like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Doris Matsui, among others, leading a national economic campaign called “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds.”

Even Republicans acknowledge their challenging relationship with women in a recent detailed report that concludes female voters view the party as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion” and “stuck in the past.” Women are “barely receptive” to Republican policies, according to the report.

If I’m a Republican woman voter, I’m shouting “Olly olly oxen free” – the phrase children yell in the game “hide and seek” when they want those in hiding to come out in plain view.

It’s true that the women’s vote generally does decline in midterm elections, but this year promises to be really dismal. California, despite recently adopting an open top-two primary system, had only 25 percent turnout rate in its June primary, the lowest in the state’s history.

Will parties seize the competitive opportunity provided to them by the female majority? Will they modernize and modify their core messages and methods to communicate with women about issues women really care about? Or, will Democrats and Republicans remain stuck in reverse – Democrats focused on reproductive issues that win elections in the short run but may turn off women in the long run, and Republicans dispatching male messengers at a faster clip than ever.

This is the warmup election, after all, for the big mama of elections in 2016, an election that will significantly increase the importance of the women’s vote if Clinton runs for president. In the next few days, we’ll see if that’s indeed all they’ve got.

Karen Skelton is founder of Skelton Strategies. She has been a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, a political adviser in the Clinton-Gore White House and a staffer on five presidential campaigns.

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