Once upon a time in American politics, there were things called "wedge issues," and they generally terrified Democrats. They were mostly social and cultural issues: abortion, feminism, gay rights, illegal immigration and race. Conservatives wielded them to divide working-class Democrats. Wedge issues helped elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency and dozens of other Republicans to Congress.
And now they aren't working anymore. Or, more precisely, they're not working for the GOP. They're helping the Democrats instead.
Take immigration, long a favorite wedge wielded by Republicans to rally white voters. Last week, the downside of that strategy was on display as Latino voters turned out in bigger numbers than ever before and gave 71% of their votes to the president. Chastened Republicans didn't need much time to figure out the math for future elections, when even more Latinos will register and vote.
"We've got to deal with the issue of immigration," Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman, told me. "We need an immigration policy based on the needs of economic policy." Even Fox News host Sean Hannity saw the light, telling radio listeners Thursday that his views have "evolved" and he favors a "pathway to citizenship" for some undocumented immigrants.
But immigration is the easy lesson. There's another set of numbers in the polls that is giving Republican strategists sleepless nights: the way women voted, especially unmarried women.
Women voted for President Obama over Mitt Romney, 55% to 44%; men voted for Romney, 52% to 45%. What's worse, the gender gap has grown since 2008; women stayed loyal to Obama even when men didn't.
And there's a bigger gap than the gender gap: the marriage gap. Most married women voted for Romney, 53% to 46%. But unmarried women went overwhelmingly for Obama, 67% to 31%.
"The gender gap is big, but the marriage gap is huge," Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg noted.
And unmarried women made up an impressive 23% of the electorate, a bloc more than twice as big as those much-studied Latinos.
Why are unmarried women — a category that includes older divorced women as well as young singles — so Democratic?
In part because of another wedge issue Democrats once wanted to hide from: abortion. A Gallup/USA Today poll in October found that when women were asked what issue in the presidential campaign was "most important for women," 39% named abortion — more than cited the economy.
Those women were particularly susceptible to the Obama campaign's relentless efforts to paint Romney as a hard-liner not only on abortion but on access to contraception.
Democrats claimed that Republicans were waging a "war on women." They paid for thousands of television ads that replayed a clip of Romney vowing: "Planned Parenthood — we're going to get rid of that." Technically, Romney was merely embracing the conservative position that Planned Parenthood should be denied funding because it provides abortions to some clients. But Obama and his allies did their best to make it sound like a broader attack on birth control and women's health, and it worked.
In polls conducted for Women's Voices, Women Vote, a liberal organization, Greenberg found that Romney's opposition to Planned Parenthood was named by one-third of unmarried women as a reason to vote against him, second only to "out of touch with average people."
If it were only a matter of nominating Senate candidates smart enough to steer clear of oddball comments about rape, the Republicans' problem would be relatively easy to solve. But attacking Planned Parenthood, abortion rights and immigration are hard to paper over.
As former GOP strategist Matthew Dowd once put it: "The Republican party is a 'Mad Men' party in a 'Modern Family' America."The question now is whether the party can recast its image before the 2016 election. It can change course on immigration and even compromise with Obama on tax rates. But with much of the GOP base composed of social conservatives and evangelical Christians, finding a new way to talk about abortion will be more difficult.
Moderates are already arguing that the GOP should simply downplay social issues. "We have to get out of people's lives, get out of people's bedrooms … or else we're going to lose," Rep. Steven C.
LaTourette (R-Ohio) said on CNN last week, calling the "tea party's" proposed solutions "crap." La Tourette is retiring from the House this year.
Social conservatives argue, instead, that they should hit the issues even harder and try to win the battle for hearts and minds. "Obama launched a war over abortion," complained Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List. "Republicans had a truce." She said her group would try to train future antiabortion candidates "to discuss the issue with compassion and love."
In the middle, the party elders are trying to navigate uncomfortably between two strains of Republicanism.
"Do Republicans want to do better among women?" Barbour asked. "You bet." How can the party do that? "That's what we need to figure out," he said.