While much has been made of Marco Rubio’s performance at CPAC and the GOP’s Latino outreach, it’s hard, walking the crowded, carpeted halls at this gathering, not to notice the Republican Party’s other big demographic problem: women. The attendees are overwhelmingly male and, of the forty-two speakers in the first two days of the conference, there were only five women. (Sarah Palin was slated for the convention’s third day.) This reflects the Party’s broader dilemma. In the 2012 election, the historic gains by women candidates were mostly on the Democratic side of the aisle, and women voters preferred the Democrats by 18 points.
And yet, the people I spoke to here could barely acknowledge the problem. “We’re fine,” said one young male Congressional staffer. His (also male) friend, an election staffer from the Midwest, added: “Our only problem is with single women. Married women don’t get abortions.” The only CPAC attendees who did seem to acknowledge the gap were, unsurprisingly, women. But their vagueness on the issue was enough to indicate that no one in the Party had really given the matter much thought.
Some thought outreach to women voters was inappropriate and philosophically base. “I don’t think they should try to appeal to women,” said Sarah, a high school senior. “I think they should just do what they’ve been doing.” Her friend Jenna agreed: Why pander? “You should just say what you believe.” In this distillation, equality means pretending differences don't exist. “We don’t think about messaging to different groups,” said Suzanne Bibby, a lobbyist who was there with ProEnglish, an organization that pushes measures enshrining English as the official language. “We care about the same issues as men, right?” The problem in November, she said, was not with a lack of outreach to different demographic groups, but with Mitt Romney: “There was a passion deficit overall.”
Others recognized the problem, but interpreted it differently. Some blamed the media for garbling the Republican message and turning women off from the Party. “The conservative movement is about individual rights, so it’s totally about women’s rights,” said Emily Canard, a 21-year-old student from BYU. “The problem is the message isn’t getting across, and we’re not investing in more strong female candidates.” Her friend, Becca DeMordant, 24, expressed a different concern: No one was paying attention to female conservatives. “I’m from Idaho, and there are tons of conservative women in Idaho. I don’t know why we’re not mobilizing them.”
Tennessee Congresswoman Diane Black agreed. “We haven’t done a good job with the messaging,” she said. “We haven’t gotten the word out there that the Republican Party is a great place for women to be. We haven’t reached out to those people starting small businesses, many of whom are women.” And despite the fact that the Republican Conference Committee is headed by a woman (Cathy McMorris Rodgers), Black conceded that “Congress is predominantly male-oriented.” But asked if the Party is doing anything to address this in light of the election’s unmistakable verdict, Black struggled. “Sheryl Sandberg is coming to talk to the Conference next week,” she offered.
“We’re just misunderstood,” said Audrey Zopp, a 20-year-old representing the college Republicans at Campbell University, in North Carolina. ("The men’s wives speak up sometimes," offered her friend, Kelsey McGaha, 19.) Mostly, though, it was not hard to see why the conservative message was faltering with younger women in parts of the country more purple than where these girls grew up. “Liberals are obsessed with being treated equal, but men and women are different, we’re different creatures,” Zopp said. “How can you treat them the same?”
McGaha chimed in to say that Republican women and the women in their organization were treated with respect. I asked her if the Campbell College Republicans had any women in leadership roles.
“Yeah!” she said. “One of them’s the secretary! She’s really nice.”