Elections can degenerate into a hold-your-nose-and-vote exercise for many voters, but given the epic inattention to women’s needs typically displayed by male candidates, women voters often face a particularly excruciating challenge in deciding between the lesser of two evils. And when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of women, this year’s Republican presidential race is enough to fry their neural synapses instead.
During the past week, as the collapse of the once-soaring Herman Cain hot air balloon inflated Newt Gingrich’s prospects—considered to be roughly equivalent to those of the dodo bird until a few minutes ago—the sudden elevation of the latest GOP favorite left analysts of every description struggling to explain the inexplicable.
“I am being disqualified because of an extramarital affair. And that raises the following question: are you fucking kidding me?” wrote humorist Andy Borowitz in an ersatz "Farewell from Herman Cain." “I mean, let’s get real. I never heard of Libya. I didn’t know whether that CNN dude’s name was Wolf or Blitz. And my only training for running the #1 nation in the world was running its #8 pizza chain. Yet none of that, I repeat, none of that disqualified me. In fact, I was the front-fucking-runner, as long as I kept my 9-9-9 in my pants. (I have no idea what I meant by that—I just like saying 9-9-9.)
“But here’s the part that really kills me,” continued the purported “final thoughts” of Herman Cain on the Borowitz Report. “You’re kicking me to the curb because I was messing around, and instead you’re going with … Newt Gingrich? I repeat: are you fucking kidding me? Oh, I know what you’re saying: you love Newt because he’s an ‘intellectual.’ Well, Newt Gingrich is the intellectual of the Republican field the way Moe was the intellectual of the Stooges.”
While comics had a field day, even serious journalists were stymied by the latest whiplash-inducing turn of events in the GOP race. In The New York Times, op-ed columnist Gail Collins noted that Cain’s reward for running was the ability to command higher speaking fees. “And he’s been replaced as the Tea Party’s darling by Newt Gingrich,” Collins marveled. “Never has the voting public’s lack of concern for a politician’s private behavior been more crystal clear.”
But is that really true? Thanks to the Internet, such assumptions may be easier to deconstruct than they used to be. Politicians at every level are desperately trying to figure out how to capture the enthusiasm of a surly electorate, but men remain, by their own admission, perpetually baffled by that pesky question, what do women want? Since the majority of the human population is female, and since the majority of women are mothers, and since women typically vote at higher rates than men do, this year’s clueless candidates might do well to investigate the Rosetta Stone of a huge chunk of women voters: the mommy blogs.
When it comes to American moms and the current elephant in the living room, women voters are facing some tricky choices. If there’s one thing moms don’t like, it’s husbands who cheat on their wives. And if anyone gave out prizes for male infidelity, the recent parade of sex scandals has to qualify as a serious contender for the all-time achievement awards: Best Year Ever for Men Behaving Badly and Getting Caught!
And yet some seem to get away with it (if “getting away with it” means not being prosecuted, like John Edwards, or facing federal investigation, like John Ensign and Bill Richardson, or having your career destroyed, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Eliot Spitzer, or having your wife dump you, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mark Sanford). In politics, a guy’s future apparently depends less on what he actually does than on how he handles the scandal when his previous misdeeds—all those sordid behaviors he hoped would stay in the closet—suddenly burst forth like that extraterrestrial monster exploding from the crewman’s chest in Alien.
“A woman looks at a candidate’s personal life and bases some of her voting decision on that. I see women out there thinking that most male candidates have affairs, and they don’t like it,” says Lindsay Ferrier, a correspondent for MomsMatter, a new nonpartisan get-out-the-vote initiative sponsored by CafeMom. The nation’s number one momsite, CafeMom attracts 9 million unique visitors and 100 million pageviews per month, along with the impassioned opinions of mothers all over the country.
“There is a general consensus that money and fame can lead to infidelity, because the man starts to want more and thinks he can have it all and get away with these kinds of activities,” Ferrier says. “I think women have become very jaded about it. What I’ve seen, over and over again, is that women want to make an emotional connection with a candidate, and any kind of infidelity in their past is going to play a huge role in whether they feel that emotional connection and whether they want to vote for a candidate.”
When Herman Cain was accused of sexual harassment by several women, two of whom had received cash settlements, and then of a 13-year affair by another woman who said he routinely gave her money, the denizens of CafeMom were not pleased. “Cain’s denials were what frustrated women the most,” says Ferrier, a Nashville mother of four and former television-news reporter. “I saw a lot of anger and resentment at Cain because of the way he dodged the sexual-harassment allegations and because he admitted he hadn’t told his wife about giving Ginger White money, which is really suspicious in the minds of moms.”
So why did Newt Gingrich’s poll numbers start soaring, given his previous history of dumping two wives and cheating on the second with the woman who became his third wife? As if that weren’t enough, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives would seem to epitomize yet another of women’s most-hated male traits. Surely Gingrich has already earned a prime place in the Hypocrisy Hall of Fame for his sanctimony in leading the ferocious drive to impeach Bill Clinton for sexual indiscretions while he himself carried on an adulterous affair with the congressional staffer for whom he eventually dumped Wife Number Two.
But Gingrich has mastered the art of the comeback, and the contrasting fortunes of Cain and Gingrich offer an edifying example of how to deal with such embarrassments, judging from the reactions of women venting on momblogs.
“Everyone knows the truth about Gingrich,” explains Ferrier. “He is very upfront about having turned to God, converted to Catholicism and having a happy marriage for the last 11 years. As much as women hate infidelity, they also love redemption. America loves a story where someone has changed inside and tried to atone for his sins.”
When it comes to sexual misconduct, Ferrier adds, “Women are more likely to overlook it if it was in the past and everyone knows about it. But if they think the man is lying or trying to cover it up, they have a huge problem with that.”
Women’s personal experience with men also affects their assessment of public figures—and if they think their own husbands are lying horndogs, they may not be so forgiving of male candidates who offer flimsy excuses for apparent misbehavior. “Women see infidelity in the lives of friends, and they recognize that it might be a problem in their own lives,” Ferrier says. “I don’t see women believing candidates when they say, ‘This didn’t happen!’ In their own lives, women are so used to men saying, ‘That was nothing!’ or ‘This is what the workplace is like!’ that they’re not going to believe it when a candidate says it. There’s definitely a bias against the media, and a sentiment that the media are going to attack any candidate that’s on top. When the first allegation against Herman Cain came out, you saw that, but as more and more allegations came out, it changed. I don’t believe women just take the candidate’s denials at face value any more, because so many scandals have been true and have turned out to be even worse than what was represented.”
But while women voters are alienated by unconvincing denials, heartfelt protestations of remorse—along with a pious helping of even feigned humility—apparently allow them to give a guy the benefit of the doubt, as some do with their own husbands. “Every woman still has that ideal that they’re going to have a storybook wedding and live happily ever after, but a lot of moms know other women who excuse their husbands’ questionable behavior because they’ve got a good life and things would be very difficult if they got a divorce,” Ferrier says. “A lot of moms have brought up that Gloria Cain had to have known what was going on with Herman.”
And yet many women react to such offenses the way Gloria Cain apparently did. “Stay-at-home moms might be more likely to ignore or overlook infidelity because of their financial dependence on their husbands,” Ferrier says. “I think it’s more difficult for stay-at-home moms to seek a divorce, but women who are working have more financial independence and feel like they could make it on their own if they had to. They’re less willing to put up with men’s sexual indiscretions than they were in the past.”
Whatever a woman’s economic status, however, the ominous mood of a disgusted electorate suggests that male candidates shouldn’t delude themselves about women’s ongoing willingness to overlook sexual transgressions.
“I think that women voters are evolving, and they’re calling for more transparency,” Ferrier concludes. “Women voters realize that politicians can make mistakes, but they are calling upon candidates to admit their mistakes. They want to see evidence of how that person has changed. What women voters hate most are the cover-ups, and what I hear over and over again is: If a candidate’s own wife can’t trust him, how can the nation trust him?”