DENVER–Exit polls reveal that Colorado still registered a gender gap in the 2012 presidential election, but it wasn’t the gender gap that most analysts were expecting.
In the state that pioneered the so-called Republican “war on women,” GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won a greater percentage of votes from women than from men.
A survey released by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University shows that 49 percent of Colorado women voters backed Romney, compared with 46 percent of men.
Romney’s success in reversing the gender gap came as an unexpected silver lining for Republicans in an otherwise dismal election year.
“I think the Obama campaign and the Democrats tried to build up the whole ‘war on women,’ and it didn’t resonate here,” said Monica Owens, director of the Romney camp’s “Women for Mitt” coalition. “I’m proud to say Colorado women didn’t fall for that.”
Colorado was the only one of nine battleground states to register a reverse gender gap. The next-closest swing state was North Carolina, which saw 54 percent of men and 49 percent of women support Romney.
The center scored the North Carolina gender gap as a difference of “5 points,” while Colorado’s differential was listed as “0 points,” although it could have also been listed as “-3 points.”
President Obama won 50 percent of both the female and male vote in Colorado. Nationally, Obama led Romney among women voters by 55 to 44 percentage points.
Not everyone is buying the numbers. Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Rutgers center, said the Colorado gender-gap breakdown “just defies common sense and any empirical data we have from the rest of the country.”
“I have an easy explanation: there is something wrong with the exit poll in Colorado or the way the results were reported,” said Carroll in an email.
Joe Lenski, executive vice-president for Edison Research in Somerville, N.J., which conducted the 2012 National Election exit polling on behalf of major news organizations, said he stood by his organization’s results. Edison has been the sole provider of election exit polling to the major news networks since 2003.
If the survey holds up, the Colorado model may serve as a national example for Republicans on how to disarm the gender war. As for what exactly constitutes the Colorado model, those involved say it started with the 2010 Colorado Senate race, which saw the unveiling of the “war on women” strategy.
That year Republican Ken Buck lost in a squeaker to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet after Democrats attacked Buck on pregnancy-related issues such as birth control and abortion. Analysts say the strategy cost Buck the election by prompting Republican suburban women to switch to Bennet.
The loss of an eminently winnable race in an otherwise Republican year set off alarms for Colorado Republicans. Chief among those was Debbie Brown, a Denver-based GOP campaign strategist who responded by launching the Colorado Women’s Alliance, a group aimed at expanding the definition of “women’s issues” beyond contraception and abortion.
She helped kick off a second organization, My Purse Politics, a Denver advocacy group focused on women’s economic concerns. Others followed, including I Am Created Equal, a Colorado Springs organization aimed at countering what founder Laura Carno called “the manufactured war on women.”
“We created and led a coalition in Colorado, collaborating with a couple other efforts, that to my knowledge wasn’t duplicated anywhere else,” said Brown.
As for doubts about the accuracy of the exit polling, “I’m surprised that Rutgers would now dismiss the Edison Research exit polling as inaccurate when they sent out the information in their own press release after the election,” said Brown.
The Colorado strategy centered on reaching out to women voters through social and traditional media. The alliance formed teams of bloggers, speakers and spokeswomen to discuss issues through interviews with newspaper, radio and television.
“We did a lot of things aimed at being the voice of conservative women in the community,” said alliance volunteer Linda Hoover.
The Romney campaign in Colorado also benefited from a team of high-profile Republican women who held weekly events aimed at women voters starting in August. The Colorado-based Romney surrogates included Frances Owens, wife of former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, along with her daughter Monica; former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, and Claudia Beauprez, wife of former Rep. Bob Beauprez.
Having a group of well-known Colorado Republican women from the outset helped the campaign gain entree with groups ranging from the Junior League to parents’ groups like the PTA, said Monica Owens.
“We bring in so many people from outside the state for these campaigns, and I think it’s an advantage to have people from within the state already here,” said Owens. “If you already have those connections, it’s a good starting point.”
While closing the gender gap was a big step, Owens said the next challenge is to help close the election gap. Romney fared better in Colorado than 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, who lost to Obama by 30 percentage points, but Obama defeated Romney by a margin of 51 to 47 percentage points.
“Now that we have it going, I want to keep it alive so that we don’t have to rebuild it again,” said Owens. “We need to keep these connections so that we don’t have to start from scratch.”