Mitt Romney's "woman problem!" Mayor Rob Ford's "woman problem!" Instead of politics as usual – battle strategies and backroom boys– the political landscape has become a Freudian seminar, preoccupied with an eternal question: What do women really want?
The answer is neither obvious nor monolithic.
Toronto's pugilistic mayor Rob Ford seems to have alienated most of his high-level female supporters on council with his testosterone-laden outlook that to compromise is just another way to be a wuss. Fed up with the bluster and conflict, the ladies were fleeing the upper deck, leaving him with no gender diversity in his close circle of supporters. While the mayor is palpably sincere, it's his bully tactics that make women less likely to stick with him.
Down south, as presidential aspirant Romney closes in on the Republican nomination, one wooden victory speech at a time, there is anguished debate about whether he can win back the female vote. His problem is the exact opposite of Ford's – it's a decided lack of authenticity.
The former Massachusetts' governor's credibility gap with women is so wide you could drive an SUV loaded with kids and groceries right through it. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll reported that 54 per cent of independent female voters under 50 in a dozen swing states favoured President Barack Obama, compared to 36 per cent for Romney.
Perhaps because he's a dud with women, Mr. Romney is increasingly depending on his personable wife, Ann, to help him out, assuring crowds she is "reporting back" to him on women's issues, a stance that is raising even more eyebrows. The New Yorker's Amy Davidson mused on her excellent blog: "Does he imagine the electorate as a cocktail party or a company barbecue, where his wife can be relied on to talk to the spouses and then report back to him? Whether women have distinct problems or universal concerns – and they have both – you don't need to be a woman to listen."
Ann Romney inadvertently added titillation to the mix by playfully telling a reporter who asked if her husband was too "stiff": "Well, you know, I guess we better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not!" (Dear God. Is Mitt perhaps under certain circumstances not "stiff" enough? )
Conservative commentators have argued that female disaffection with Romney has little to do with the highly publicized battle over contraception or other antediluvian social views that have been aired as part of what some are calling the Republican War on Women. (After all, former senator Rick Santorum, Mr. Romney's main rival, who has astoundingly said he disapproves of all contraception, has more enthusiastic women supporters.)
Instead, says David Frum, it's the wealthy Mitt's lack of "compassionate conservatism" and how it affects economic issues and a female-held value of helping others, that turns many women off.
Women can dislike a political candidate for any number of reasons. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's robot-tone delivery and cold-hearted political calculus alienated women voters for a long time until finally, forget the cozy cardigan, he came across as the most plausible protector of the fragile economy and won many of them over.
But attracting female voters may be especially about authenticity. Women are pretty good baloney detectors, and they don't like being lied to – by lovers or leaders.(Men don't either, of course, but women seem to place a higher value on authenticity.)
Mitt Romney, who has severely tilted his views rightward to appeal to the conservative base, has been revealed as a Class A phony even by his own senior campaign strategist, who famously said that whatever rigidly right wing views his man was spouting to get the nomination, the fall election campaign against Obama would wipe them clean like an "etch-a-sketch," allowing him to start over.
Although the Republican math will most likely defeat him in the end, Mr. Santorum clearly, every time he speaks, wins out over Mr. Romney in the authenticity sweepstakes. No matter what nonsense he is spouting, he comes across as secure, completely sincere and comfortable with his views. Scarily so. One poll reported Republican women felt Mr. Santorum "understood" them better than Mr. Romney did by a huge margin.
You can get into trouble pretty fast asserting gender stereotypes, male or female, to bolster any political theory. So needing backup, I rushed out and got Canadian journalist and Giller-Prize winning novelist Linden MacIntyre's new, irresistibly titled novel Why Men Lie. It is the story of the life and loves of Effie Gillis, a middle-aged academic, who after two failed marriages could use a lie detector machine to deal not only with her latest love, but all the men who come and go in her life. But despite the dust jacket come on ("Men lie to satisfy the needs they never can articulate: for sex, for love, for reassurance"), I am still left with just a premise that authenticity is a major factor for women voters.
It's a good one, though. Let's see how it plays out.