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How's the great contraception mandate battle of 2012 playing out? If you read the Washington Post's news coverage, the issue is supposedly killing Republicans among female voters. But the newest Washington Post/ABC poll tells a different story.


During the first few days of February, about a week before Obama declared a so-called "accommodation" to the contraception/abortifacient mandate, a Washington Post/ABC poll showed Obama's approval rating at 50 percent, with 46 percent of Americans disapproving.

Then, from March 7 to 10--a week into the national media firestorm surrounding Rush Limbaugh's degrading remarks about Georgetown Law student and liberal activist Sandra Fluke--Washington Post/ABC conducted another poll. It found Obama's approval rating at 46 percent, down four points from February, and his disapproval rating at 50 percent, up four points from February.

In February, Obama was leading Mitt Romney, 51 percent to 45 percent among registered voters. In March, Obama was trailing Mitt Romney, 47 percent to 49 percent among registered voters. The Post/ABC pollster finds that Obama "did better among men and women alike last month, and has lost ground slightly among both sexes this month."

While women are 12 points more apt than men to identify themselves as Democrats, that essentially matches the long-term norm. Largely because of that partisan gap, Obama’s approval rating is 9 points higher among women than men, but again this is typical. Compared with last month, disapproval of Obama’s job performance is up slightly among men, and there’s no increase in approval among women. And on vote preference vs. Romney, Obama did better among men and women alike last month, and has lost ground slightly among both sexes this month. In the latest results Romney has a 12-point lead among men who are registered voters; among women, it’s Obama +6.

The Post/ABC poll asked Americans, "Do you think health insurance companies should or should not be required to cover the full cost of birth control for women?" It found that 61 percent of Americans think insurance companies should be required to pay for it. But if "the insurance is provided through a religiously affiliated employer that objects to birth control, however, support for this requirement drops to 49 percent (52 percent of women, 45 percent of men)." (It's worth noting that polls on this issue have varied significantly depending on how the question is asked. When a poll specifies that the "federal government" is the entity requiring employers to pay for birth control coverage, support for the mandate in general is evenly split.)

The bottom line is that it's not clear at all that the fight over the contraception/abortifacient mandate has hurt Republicans. The Post/ABC pollster attributes Obama's dip in the polls to high gas prices. Of course, the biggest story in February was the mandate, so it's possible that the mandate is actually hurting Obama.

But if you read the Washington Post's report by Karen Tumulty this weekend on the GOP's slide among female voters, you'd think the new mandate was a terrible issue for Republicans. The report originally began with this sentence: "The fragile gains Republicans had been making among female voters have been erased by what in recent weeks has become a national shouting match over reproductive issues, potentially handing President Obama and the Democrats an enormous advantage this fall." The Post then backed up the claim that the events of "recent weeks" had caused the GOP to lose female voters: It noted that women favored Democratic control of Congress by 4 points in a Wall Street Journal poll last summer, but now favor Democrats by 15 points in a new WSJ poll.

On Twitter, I pointed out to the Post's reporter that Obama's numbers had improved a lot between last summer and January--before the "shouting match over reproductive issues" had begun. Gallup, for example, showed Obama's net approval rating among all voters improving from -11 in August to -2 in January. So the fight in February over the mandate couldn't have caused Obama's improvement. It seems much more likely that better economic news caused Obama's rebound in the polls over the past several months, but the Post reporter never considers the possibility. (The same reporter once credulously cited a poll claiming that coverage of abortion under Obamacare would be wildly popular. Reliable polls showed abortion coverage was deeply unpopular, and the issue nearly killed Obamacare.)

A better way to measure how the fight over the mandate is playing out would be to compare January polls to late February or early March polls--and then compare movement among female voters to movement among male voters over the same period. Gallup showed Obama's approval rating average unchanged from January to February. And now we have the Post/ABC numbers showing that "there’s no increase in approval [for Obama] among women. And on vote preference vs. Romney, Obama did better among men and women alike last month." The generic Democratic edge among women voters "essentially matches the long-term norm," according to the Post/ABC pollster.

After our Twitter exchange, the Post reporter toned down the piece. The claim that the fight over "reproductive issues" caused the GOP's slide among women voters was deleted. The piece now notes that the GOP's downward trend among women voters "began before the controversy in recent weeks." (See the original report here.)

But even with these tweaks, the story is still one-sided. From its weak polling analysis, the story goes on to quote two Democratic pollsters, the president of a liberal think tank, and a Republican pollster working for a rival of Rick Santorum's--all of whom argue the issue is bad for Republicans.

The story also quotes Maine senator Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican who voted against the conscience exemption to Obamacare. The Post never notes that three Democrats voted for the conscience bill, and it pretends Kelly Ayotte, a Republican senator from New Hampshire who has been an outspoken opponent of the mandate, doesn't exist. Old white guy Orrin Hatch serves as a much more useful foil in the Post's 'GOP v. women' narrative.

The Post notes that Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski did an about-face on the conscience bill after she voted for it, but Murkowski is in a unique situation. She lost the 2010 Republican primary and won a three-way race without the support of conservatives. Murkowski badly needs a good chunk of support from social liberals and Democrats, unlike most Republicans.

Of course, Senator Scott Brown needs lots of moderates and independents to vote for him in liberal Massachusetts. And according to the Boston Globe, "Brown may have benefited from his positions on social issues in the last few weeks, such as the one over whether Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraception in their health care plans for workers."

Brown's Democratic opponent oriented her entire campaign around "contraception access" for the past month, but Brown tackled the issue head on and now holds a significant lead over Warren in Massachusetts. But this fact doesn't fit with the Washington Post's narrative, so it apparently isn't fit to print.

Update: On Twitter, the Post's Karen Tumulty disagrees with my post. "Obama approval [among] men plummeted in past month, stayed even [with] women," Tumulty tweets. According to the poll's crosstabs (which Tumulty helpfully passed along), Obama's approval rating actually dropped 3 points among women and 6 points among men between February and March (Obama's disapproval rating was up 1 point among women and up 7 points among men):

Obama's approval among women

February: 53-44

March: 50-45.

Obama's approval rating among men

February: 47-48

March: 41-55

I don't see how a 6-point drop among one group amounts to "plummeting" approval rating, but a 3-point drop among another group amounts to "little change."