What women want, what candidates need

Meg Rowley looks to Stephanie Cutter to bring women’s issues to the fore in 2012

When we think about leadership in the US presidential campaigns, attention is focused on the candidates themselves.  But it is a mistake to overlook the enormous amount of influence that their campaign managers wield. From behind the scenes, they will ultimately determine what and who will decide the election in November.

Experts are predicting that this year both the ‘what and who’ will be answered by women. When you look at the figures, it is easy to see why. Women make up slightly over half the electorate. They are also more likely to vote, as was proven by their outnumbering male voters by 10 million in the 2008 election.  Given these numbers, it is difficult to understand why the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns have not yet made courting the female vote a higher priority.

With no opinion on the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — a law that makes it easier for women to sue for unequal pay — and Republican plans to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood,  which offers reproductive and sexual healthcare and advice, the Romney campaign has much to gain from keeping a low profile on women’s issues. But, in order to win in November, Obama will need to do just the opposite.

This requires not just a refocusing of the campaign but also a female voice to lead the argument. In his Deputy Campaign Manager, Stephanie Cutter, he has the ideal candidate for the task. The question is why she has not yet fully taken the fight to the Republicans in this critical area.

Cutter’s high-profile involvement in the 2012 Obama campaign has already signaled a shift in strategy from 2008’s reliance on idealism to a much more aggressive rebuttal of Republican attacks. Her no-nonsense responses have often served as a rally cry to the Democrat’s rank and file.   In particular, her video demolition of the claims made in an attack by the Americans for Prosperity – a campaign group funded by oil tycoons – which calls for party supporters to expose their ‘bs’ or ‘bullshit’ has reached nearly 700,000 views on YouTube.

But Cutter’s take on women’s issues has been more subdued.  It is true that, when Republican National Committee Chairman, Reince Priebus, dismissed the so-called Republican ‘war on woman’ by claiming it would be just as outrageous to say that Republicans had a war against caterpillars, Cutter said that the flippant dismissal showed  how little regard leading Republicans had for women’s health. And, when Romney senior campaign adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, claimed that the Obama campaign would use ‘shiny objects’ like women’s issue to distract from the Obama administration’s poor economic record, Cutter used the opportunity to make the issue appeal to undecided voters with libertarian leanings. She turned the Republican’s anti-big government position against them by arguing that in restricting women’s choices, they were increasing rather than reducing government intrusion in their lives.

But so far these incidents are more isolated than might be expected given how crucial women’s votes are going to be to winning in November. It is understandable that the Obama campaign would not want to restrict Cutter by typecasting her as their spokesperson on women’s issues.  Cutter has already proven herself to be invaluable in articulating unnecessarily complex political issues in a way that can engage the average voter. But the Obama campaign can’t afford to miss an opportunity to have her use these same tactics to elevate the importance of women’s and social issues in the campaign.

There is also plenty of fodder for Cutter to do this. Nearly a century after women received the vote, less than 20 per cent of the US Senate is female. A couple of generations since women entered the labour market in large numbers, men still run 488 of the Fortune 500 companies. The failure of the US, like the UK, to make the most of the talents and potential of women is a major block on economic progress.

It is no wonder that the recent portrayal of the tactics women used to break through the glass ceiling in the 1960s on the popular U.S. television show Mad Men garnered so much media attention. Viewers and critics were less appalled by the culture of yesteryear than they were surprised at how many of the boundaries remain today. These points are critical because issues of economic and cultural significance often have profound political consequences.

Cutter has the communication gifts and experience to harness this economic and cultural disquiet for Obama’s advantage. To convince more of the undecided voters, however, she will need to adopt a more hardline approach to women’s issues, much like the one that played so well in response to the Americans for Prosperity claims.

There is a risk, of course, that in doing so, she will be accused of trying to distract attention from the difficulties in the economy.  But, as the Lily Ledbetter Act demonstrates, women and the economy are not mutually exclusive issues.  Indeed, the presidency may very well be awarded in November to the campaign that can best combine the two.   Millions more women, after all, are likely to vote in November than men.  It’s going to be difficult to win their votes without attention to the ‘shiny objects,’ and, more importantly, without a Stephanie Cutter at the helm to articulate them.

*Stephanie Cutter made a big impression on both Portland Staff and clients when, before joining the Obama team, she flew to London to speak at a Portland event in 2008.

Meg Rowley is an Account Executive in Portland’s New York office. In New York, she has worked with UN clients like UNFPA and the UN Foundation as well as for international nonprofits like WITNESS.