Elle | April 24, 2015
On this, little boys and the women of Burning Glass Consulting agree: It's hard to talk to girls. But, lately, it seems not even local elementary schoolers are as likely to strike out as Republican politicians.
In December 2014, Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin proposed a bill that would require a woman seeking an abortion to receive signed permission from "the father of the unborn child." Except, he added, in the event of a "legitimate rape." In God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, which Mike Huckabee published in January, the former Arkansas governor described Beyonc lyrics as "obnoxious and toxic mental poison" and wondered whether Jay-Z had crossed the line from husband to pimp for "exploiting his wife as a sex object." In February, Rand Paul reminded everyone of their worst ex-boyfriends when he "shushed" CNBC anchor Kelly Evans, telling her to "calm down" in the middle of a tense interview.
Your neighborhood bully could do better. Longtime political operatives Katie Packer Gage, Ashley O'Connor, and Christine Matthews know it. In 2013, the trio joined forces to establish Burning Glass Consulting. The firm is the first of its kinda strategy outfit designed to help Republican candidates win over female voters. And its founderstwo of whom worked for Mitt Romney during his run for president in 2012want to correct the mistakes that have undone conservative campaigns in the past.
"During the Romney campaign we spent a lot of time researching and talking with womenmoderate women, independent women," O'Connor explained. "We learned a lot, and it just sort of occurred to us that nobody else was going to carry this knowledge and care about it as much as we did." After the election, she and Gage approached Matthews, a shrewd pollster whom O'Connor praised as "one of the best in the business." Together, they are determined to remake the message that Republicans send women. And while the women are loath to name their clients, they point to the successes of conservative candidates in the most recent mid-term elections as proof of their winning formula.
"Trust us," Matthews said, her eye on the upcoming presidential race. "It's going to be effective."
Was there an "a-ha" moment that convinced you that your party needed guidance on how to reach women?
Packer Gage: There were a couple of pretty famous instances during the 2012 campaignboth having to do very specifically with reproductive issuesthat [motivated us]. One was Todd Akin in Missouri, and one was Richard Mourdock in Indiana. These candidates just said incredibly inane things that, just being women, we realized how off-putting they were. I think we thought it was a problem both with the quality and caliber of the candidates that were running against Democrats and also just proved a real lack of understanding of women. Those were things that stood out.  We recognized that it was going to be important moving forward that we didn't allow stupid comments like that from folks who carry our banner to define our party.
What are the most common questions politicians ask when you start working together?
Packer Gage: The first question that we always get askedand this isn't unique to candidates; we get it from reporters, toois "What are the issues women care about?" And we chuckle about that. One of the "training exercises," if you will, that we go through with both reporters and with candidates is that we say that there aren't, like, three issues that women care about. I often respond to that [question] by saying, "Well, let's first talk about the issues that men care about." And people laugh at that, because the notion the men are only allowed to care about a handful of issues is comical.
We think it's very insulting to suggest that about women, too. It's really in a lot of ways the media and the left that have decided and dictated what are "women's issues." And we just want to reframe that and say, "Okay, there's a lot of issues that women care about, but we're not talking to them in a way that sort of captivates their attention, and that's something that we need to work on."
What differences have you noticed in how men and women respond to campaigns?
Matthews: In order to reach women voters, you do not have to hammer them over the head, particularly with contrast or negative campaign spots. I think that's one real difference You're able to make a lot more subtle case with women. We know, from the research that we've done, what really works with women. If they see something that they think is too over the top, they just disregard it as non-credible. What works with them is for them to kind of call into question something themselves. Then they go online, they research it, and they become action-oriented on that. When we were working with campaigns [in 2014] we would say, "You know, I know you want to do the black and white and the scary music at 10,000 decibels, but, honestly, that's going to turn women off. So, let's tone it down just a little."
O'Connor: One thing we've learned through research is how important tone is when you're talking to women. When you overstate, we've learned that women will no longer be receptive to the message. But if you are measured in your tone and your argument, and raise a doubt or raise a question, it's just much more effective when you're trying to communicate with women.
As we approach this upcoming presidential election, have you zeroed in on any particularly effective outreach strategy to appeal to women?
Packer Gage: I think one of the places where we got ahead of the Democrats in 2014 is that in 2014 they were still talking to women generically, treating all women as if they think the same way And we were, I think, successful at sort of peeling apart different segments and messaging to women differently based on a lot of other factors beyond just gender.
Matthews: What was interesting to me was what we found when we looked at different groups of women. We would have young women, who you would think would be particularly keen on reproductive issues, but when we talked to them in focus groups and in our other research, they were just exasperated. They were like, "I have a master's degree. I have an MBA, and I can't get a job. That is much more important to me." And [older] women were like, "That part of my life is all done with now, so I'm really not interested in hearing about this ad nauseam."
That really is true. Not all women think alike. Not only are men and women different, but also there are all kinds of subgroups of women. They all think differently. The ability to speak to them about the issues they care about I think is something we do pretty well.
How important do you think it is that we have a female president? How do you feel about the fact that Hillary Clinton has announced her intention to run?
Packer Gage: I think I probably speak for all of us in saying that we would be thrilled to someday have a female president. I don't think that we would say that that's the only thing that matters and that we should elect somebody because they're a woman in spite of all the other strengths and weaknesses that they and the other candidates put forward.
The things I like about having a female president, I just don't necessarily think that Hillary Clinton best represents. I typically like the idea of a woman candidate because they bring a very different perspective from men, because they haven't normally taken the same path to power that men have. And what is unsettling to me about Hillary Clinton is that she happens to be a woman, but she has functioned in a very typical politician manner throughout her time in the public eye. She has in every way been a very typical politician in spite of the fact that she's a woman.
O'Connor: I think we'd all very much look forward to a woman as president, but at the end of the day, it's not necessarily solely about gender. I mean vision, policy, and message matter. They matter more than just gender.
To that end, are there any rising female stars in the Republican Party that you're watching closely? Is there anyone that you have really high hopes for?
O'Connor: I think Elise Stefanik, a congresswoman from New York, is a great example. She just turned 30. She's the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress. She's incredibly smart. She came in with a huge gusto.
Matthews: Senator Kelly Ayote from New Hampshire is another. She's a younger mother. She has younger kids. She's just incredibly smart and very compassionate. She just introduced legislation that basically would make it easier for there to be workplace flexibility, particularly for people who are not in upper-management jobs. Honestly, the thing that's a little bit frustrating to me is that it doesn't get the coverage. Somebody says something stupidthat gets coverage. But some of the really great things that our Republican women are doing to help the workplace and help working familiesthat doesn't seem to get covered as much in the media. That's a shame.
Packer Gage: For some reason, I feel like these women don't seem to get a lot of attention, and I think maybe it's because they're conservative. You know, [Congresswoman] Mia Love from Utah is a black woman, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, is married, and has three full-aged kids. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has risen to really high levels in the US House. Susana Martinez, the Governor of New Mexico, is wonderful. People sometimes tend to think of politicians as being really rich and powerful, but this is a woman whose husband is a cop. These are just really unique and remarkable women who I think can be held up as examples of people who are sort of doing it all and doing it beautifully.
Matthews: And changing the face of the Republican Party while they're at it.
Packer Gage: We have a lot of strong, impressive women in our party. And I think that it's important for us as a party to be highlighting that, because the stereotype of our party doesn't necessarily represent who's in it these days in Washington, D.C.