Is the Republican Party doomed to repeat 2012’s “War on Women” in the 2016 presidential campaign? The three male, Republican candidates for president may surprise you. The Democratic Party’s narrative that the Republican Party was committing a “War on Women” was based on a series of remarks that made Todd Akin, Robert Mourdock, Rick Santorum, and Rush Limbaugh household names in 2012. From Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” for her advocacy around contraception, to Santorum’s opposition to abortion in cases of rape, this constellation of extreme statements gave the Democratic Party ample material to demonstrate that the Republican Party was hopelessly out of touch with women, particularly around issues of reproduction and sexuality. While the “War on Women” narrative was less successful for Democrats in last year’s elections, it has reemerged in 2015 with renewed attention to the Republican candidates for president.
This attention is not surprising: all of the current Republican candidates have been clear on their opposition to abortion and contraception; Ted Cruz symbolically demonstrated his social conservatism by making his campaign announcement at Liberty University, where abortion is one of the most severely punishable student offenses. Combined with the context of now-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s confirmation—held up for several months over partisan disagreements over a Hyde Amendment rider to a human trafficking bill—the stakes are high for Republican candidates to balance appealing to female voters and ideologically conservative primary voters.
The “War on Women” would not have political weight if female voters had not emerged as an important electorate in 2012. As women consistently register and turn out to vote at higher rates than men, women are essential to both parties’ electoral success. In 2012, Republican positions on reproduction and sexuality turned off politically decisive subgroups of female voters: Millennial female voters are consistently more liberal in their attitudes on abortion and had one of the largest gender gaps in the 2012 election. Another important subgroup of female voters, Latinas, demonstrated preference for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in 2012, particularly on “women’s issues” such as abortion and contraception, with the majority of Latinas preferring the Democratic Party’s handling of these issues. While the “War on Women” may have ensured conservative votes, 2012’s historically large gender gap demonstrated a lack of connection between Republicans and female voters.
Looking towards 2016, Republicans are tasked with balancing female voters while maintaining their anti-abortion and anti-contraception positions. Although Cruz, Rubio, and Paul may move to the right on abortion and contraception, they are maintaining a safe distance from the rhetoric of 2012. The candidates have framed these policies as a matter of patriotism, framing abortion and contraception as questions of political liberty that is rooted in human life and personhood. As Rand Paul states in a campaign video on his website, the United States was “conceived in liberty” and “liberty cannot be protected if life is not.” Similarly, Marco Rubio uses the same rhetoric around abortion, connecting his anti-abortion position to liberty and patriotism. In his official campaign website, Rubio contends that “I believe as a nation, we should always come down on the side of life.” Ted Cruz joins the other candidates in arguing that “without life, there is no liberty,” a statement illustrated by photographs of himself with his wife and two children.
The three candidates platforms fall safely within the majority of public opinion attitudes on these issues. Cruz’s proposed restrictions on partial birth abortion procedures and abortions for young women under the age of 18 are backed by the American public: in 2011, Gallup found that a majority of the public supports restrictions on late term abortions, partial birth abortions, and abortion access for minors under the age of 18. Similarly, Paul argues for restrictions of public funding of abortion, a position shared by 61% of individuals surveyed by CNN in 2011. Paul also advocates for state control over abortion regulation, a political reality that has resulted in over 230 unique abortion restrictions at the state level in the last five years. It may be Marco Rubio who is uniquely provocative: he argues that Roe v Wade is a “poorly decided legal precedent and should be overturned,” a position that goes against most of the public—the majority of the public surveyed by Gallup in 2011 would keep Roe as a legal decision, with 63% of the public agreeing with the Roe decision. Each of the three Republican candidates have marched largely in step with majority opinions on abortion, and have supported religious exemptions for contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, as well at through the Hobby Lobby decision.
The Republican Party has also deflected the abortion issue to the Democrats, particularly Democratic women. Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina have both painted the Democrats as the party that is unreasonable about abortion, arguing that Democratic women are in favor of abortion access at any time during a pregnancy. Paul told the Associated Press to “go back and ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s okay with killing a 7 pound baby…that’s not born yet” while Fiorina separately contended that the Democratic position was that “‘It is not a life until it leaves the hospital.'”
Carly Fiorina, the potential female Republican presidential candidate, may give observers the clearest vision of how Republicans could be planning on handling reproductive and sexuality issues in 2016. As a Republican woman, she is especially positioned to soften the face of the Republican Party around reproduction and sexuality. Fiorina used the Iowa Freedom Summit in January to address abortion and contraception, arguing that it was Democrats that are actually “waging a war on women….liberals believe that flies are worth protecting, but an unborn child is not,” arguing that liberal positions on the environment are hypocritical in line with pro-abortion rights rhetoric. While she established herself securely as a conservative against abortion access, the message was softened somewhat. Later in the Iowa Freedom Summit speech she argued that reproductive decisions were difficult, such as prenatal diagnoses whereby mothers and fetuses undergo tests for genetic and developmental problems. Instead of maintaining a hard-line stance towards abortion, Fiorina argued that such women don’t deserve political “judgment or condemnation” and that “these women deserve our empathy and support” for the tough reproductive decisions they face.
Does this softened rhetoric—an obvious contrast against Robert Mourdock’s 2012 statement that pregnancies resulting from rape are “something God intends to happen” or Rick Santorum’s sentiment that contraception “diminish[es] this very special bond between a man and a woman”—mean that the Republican Party has learned hard won lessons from 2012? It is unclear. None of the official or potential candidates have distanced themselves from highly restrictive abortion bills in Congress such as the ban on abortions after 20 weeks in the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” in the House, nor similar state bans. Instead of confronting mistakes made in 2012 around issues of reproduction and sexuality, the official candidates have almost no distinctive positions; Fiorina, not even officially a candidate, has employed her gender and partisanship in a recent public breakfast to present an unmistakably conservative position on abortion, but a position that recognizes the bipartisan need for “common ground” among conservative and liberal women. As a Republican and a woman, scholarship tells us that voters may perceive Fiorina as more willing to compromise with Democrats on policy, as well as being more competent on social issues than male candidates in the Republican presidential race.
Even if gender and partisanship may be shaping rhetoric around abortion and contraception in the Republican field of presidential candidates, the campaigns have just begun: a long primary season is ahead, and even potential presidential candidates in the Republican Party—such as Scott Walker—have moved ideologically to the right on abortion policy. The Republican lessons learned in 2012 may be that extreme statements don’t work on voters, especially valuable female voters. Instead of changing their platform on abortion and contraception, Republican candidates may simply be waiting for the first person establish a position on these polarizing issues—or perhaps may be stepping aside to have Republican women candidates such as Fiorina lead on abortion and contraception. Until then, they are staying safely within the boundaries of public opinion and the political rhetoric of liberty and life.
 MacManus, Susan A. 2013. “Voter Participation: The Political Generational Divide Among Women Voters.” In Gender and Elections, Ed. Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Sampaio, Anna. 2013. “Latinas and Electoral Politics: Expanding Participation and Power in State and National Elections.” In Gender and Elections, Ed. Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Erin Heidt-Forsythe is an assistant professor in Women’s Studies and Political Science at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in US state politics and policy around reproduction and biotechnology. Her areas of specialization include science, medicine, and health; reproduction and reproductive ethics; American state politics and policy. She has published on reproduction and social policy, reproductive ethics, and assisted reproductive technologies. From 2012-13, she was a grant-funded faculty research associate at the Center for Genetic Research Ethics and Law (CGREAL) at Case Western Reserve University. Erin Heidt-Forsythe received her B.A. in Politics at Occidental College and a PhD in Women and Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.