Ken Cuccinelli's defeat in the governor's race in Virginia seems like another sign that the Republican Party has trouble appealing to women.
Cuccinelli, who was backed by the Tea Party, did six points worse among women than among men. The same was true for Mitt Romney in Virginia in the 2012 presidential race.
This gap has been ascribed to the Republican position on abortion and contraception, in particular. "Ken Cuccinelli drove women voters away by being the human embodiment of the Republican War on Women," said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily's List, after this week's election.
Yet a broader look at public opinion suggests a more qualified story. The 2012 presidential race was also cited as an example of how the Republican stances on reproductive issues hurt them. After Romney answered a question about pay equity by referring to "binders full of women" during the second presidential debate, a spokeswoman for the campaign of President Barack Obama, Jen Psaki, said, "The more we're talking about women's issues, women's health care, the differences between the candidates, the better it is for us." Romney later attributed Obama's victory in part to the "gift" of "free contraceptives" for young women.
We have found little evidence that either Psaki or Romney was right. We measured attention to contraception and abortion in 11,000 publications and media outlets in 2012, tracking the controversies about these issues. We then combined this information about news coverage with weekly polling from the presidential race. Our analysis showed that women's attitudes toward Obama or Romney were no different when abortion and contraception were in the news, compared with when they weren't. This was true for all women and specifically for those in their childbearing years.
We also found that attitudes toward abortion contributed relatively little to Obama's share of the vote among women. Conservative attitudes on abortion among Republican-leaning women shored up their support for Romney. The abortion views of Democratic-leaning women shored up their support for Obama in roughly equal measure.
Among women who were initially undecided in the race, however, abortion had little net benefit for either candidate. Almost equal numbers of undecided women described themselves as pro-life, pro-choice or "both." Paradoxically, we found that the abortion issue probably helped Obama more among men than women, mainly by shoring up his support among Democratic-leaning men.
Although we are accustomed to hearing that Americans feel strongly about abortion, most people are ambivalent on the subject. Most Americans don't want to overturn Roe v. Wade, suggesting that they support a right to abortion in general. Yet their support for exercising that right depends greatly on the reason for the abortion.
According to the 2012 General Social Survey, large majorities of Americans support abortion rights in cases of rape or incest, or when the pregnancy seriously endangers the woman's health. But fewer than half of Americans support abortion when the circumstances are more discretionary, such as when the woman doesn't want any more children. Most Americans support first- trimester abortions; only a minority supports abortion in later trimesters.
The challenge for some Republican candidates was that they took stands outside of consensus opinion, not that they were generally pro-life. That was true in the 2012 Senate races of Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana. Their suggestions that abortion in rape cases wasn't justified were costly because so few Americans agreed with them. Cuccinelli's call for requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before obtaining abortions wasn't as controversial, yet it put him against majority opinion. In a February 2013 poll, 55 percent of Virginians opposed mandatory ultrasounds, while 36 percent supported them.
The 2012 national survey reflected another significant fact. Men and women generally have similar attitudes about abortion even though the issue affects women's choices more directly. The poll showed that 45 percent of women and 44 percent of men supported abortion "if the woman wants it for any reason."
No clear evidence exists that the issue is a priority for women in particular. It is true that in the exit poll 25 percent of female voters in Virginia, compared with only 14 percent of men, chose the abortion issue as most important from a list that also included the economy, transportation and health care (though more women selected the economy and health care than abortion). Most of the women who chose the abortion issue voted for Terry McAuliffe, the victorious Democrat, rather than Cuccinelli.
Yet this correlation can't tell us if abortion caused them to vote this way. And this exit-poll question likely inflated the priority that voters attached to abortion. In a July CBS News Poll, only 2 percent of Americans chose abortion as the most important issue from a list that included the economy, budget deficit, health care, education, illegal immigration and the environment.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, we also found that men were better informed than women on contraception-related controversies. For example, men were more likely than women to correctly identify Republican Rick Santorum's position on birth control from a list that included two made-up statements as well as his actual statement that birth control is "a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."
None of this is meant to suggest that people don't care deeply about contraception and abortion. But activists on both sides aren't likely to be persuadable voters in the first place.
With most voters somewhere in the middle, there is no likely electoral gain or loss for either party from garden- variety pro-life or pro-choice positions. The more pressing imperative for candidates is to avoid extreme positions that could alienate moderate voters.
Cuccinelli, like Akin and Mourdock, may have failed in this regard. Future Republican candidates can learn from their examples.
John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. Lynn Vavreck is an associate professor of political science and communication studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. They are the authors of "The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Election."