The College National Republican Committee is the latest group to reflect on what went wrong for the GOP during the last election. Being college Republicans, they focused on voters ages 18–29 and discovered, to no one's great surprise, that voters in that group view Republicans as a bunch of stuffy, privilege-protecting bigots. Of course, as with all other groups examining the question of how to expand the appeal of the Republican Party, the college Republicans seem wary of grappling with the actual policy choices that established this image and are instead considering it a problem of branding, misperception, or media bias. The section on reproductive rights demonstrates how far their heads are buried:
Unfortunately for the GOP, the Republican Party has been painted—both by Democrats and by unhelpful voices in our own ranks—as holding the most extreme anti-abortion position (that it should be prohibited in all cases). Furthermore, the issue of protecting life has been conflated with issues around the definition of rape, funding for Planned Parenthood, and even contraception.
Notice the passive language: "been conflated," as if this was something done to Republicans instead of something they openly and oftentimes eagerly do to themselves. No one is forcing Republicans to attack contraception subsidies every chance they get. Republicans did not actually have to insist that your employer be able to prevent you from using your own insurance benefits on contraception, nor did they have to convene an all-male panel to discuss how important it was to give a woman's boss a vote in her reproductive health care. It wasn't required of the party that it run so many rape philosophers for office.
Indeed, the problem for Republicans on the subject of reproductive rights is that young voters accurately understand its positions:
In the words of one female participant in our Hispanic voter focus group in Orlando, “I think Romney wanted to cut Planned Parenthood. And he supports policies where it would make it harder for a woman to get an abortion should she choose, even if it were medically necessary. That goes head in hand with redefining rape.” In the Columbus female voter focus group, even respondents who said they were strongly pro-life were uncomfortable hearing Republicans talk about wanting to defund Planned Parenthood. In the words of one pro-life respondent, “The Planned Parenthood thing for me is not so much about abortion; it’s about counseling before you can get to that point, and I feel that’s a big part of what they do, is contraception counseling and about being safe.”
In other words, the women in the focus groups were paying attention: Romney does want to make abortion inaccessible, and he did say that he would end subsidies to the organization, even though those subsidies are used strictly for nonabortion services such as contraception and cancer screening. The anti-abortion respondent is absolutely correct to claim that most patients at Planned Parenthood are there for services other than abortion, which only makes up about 3 percent of what they do.
Still, the college Republicans avoid bluntly advising that GOP candidates give up their war on contraception:
The challenge is to be mindful of ways that the issue of abortion branches (or can be distorted by opponents) into other policy areas where the GOP does not enjoy the same level of support.
The problem is that opponents aren't distorting the attacks on contraception. The only way for Republicans to not be perceived as anti-contraception is to stop attacking contraception. Nothing else will work.