It was fascinating – stunning, really – to watch Indiana Republican primary voters dump U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar overboard last May.
The March Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll showed he would have been a clear favorite to hold on to his Senate seat in November. He was – and will be for perhaps decades to come – the most prolific vote-getter in Hoosier history.
Not only did Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock kick away this Senate seat that had been in the GOP column since 1976, his “God intends” debate rape remark on Oct. 23 created colossal collateral damage as he lost the female vote 52-42 percent. While Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was upset via a social media campaign by educators alarmed about the sprawling school reforms, it was Mike Pence who came within an eyelash of a stunning upset.
In the September Howey/DePauw Poll, Pence was leading 46-33 percent among women, despite his leading the charge from Capitol Hill on the defunding of Planned Parenthood. His Democratic opponent, John Gregg, pointed this out in his standard stump speech, but got little traction.
When Howey/DePauw polled again on Oct. 28-30 – five days after the Mourdock debate blunder – Pence and Gregg were tied with female voters at 42 percent. And on Election Day, Pence eked out a 49.8 to 46.3 percent victory – the closest Indiana gubernatorial race since 1960. Gregg led by 52-47 percent among female voters.
That was a dramatic 18 percent drop off of female support for Pence in a little over a month. It coincided not only with the Mourdock rape comment, but Gregg finally ditched the Sandborn TV ad schtick, and began running ads tying Pence to the Tea Party and Mourdock. In the hours after Mourdock’s remark, Pence called for him to apologize, and then backed off, lauded him at the state GOP dinner and vouched for him on the campaign trail.
Part of this erosion of support can be attributed to Pence’s gallant decision not to run negative ads, but Republican pollster Christine Matthews observed, “I wasn’t expecting him to lose women by the 47-52 percent he did, and I think there was definitely a ‘Mourdock’ impact on his race.”
Now, did the Mourdock blunder alter the presidential race?
The evidence of this is clearly circumstantial, in part because the presidential polling was all over the map. But on Oct. 15, USA Today ran a Gallup poll showing Republican Mitt Romney trailing President Obama by just 49-48 percent among women in the crucial swing states.
“He has growing enthusiasm among women to thank,” the newspaper reported. “As the presidential campaign heads into its final weeks, the survey of voters in 12 crucial swing states finds female voters much more engaged in the election and increasingly concerned about the deficit and debt issues that favor Romney. As a group, women tend to start paying attention to election contests later and remain more open to persuasion by the candidates and their ads.”
Three weeks later, Obama won a second term, carrying all the swing states save North Carolina. He did so, as ABC News described on Nov. 6, with a “coalition of women and nonwhites. If white women had stayed in Romney’s camp, those swing states – Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire – might have moved into his column.”
What happened between Oct. 15 and Nov. 6 that changed the surge of female support to Romney to the game changing hand President Obama displayed on Election Day?
Perhaps Mourdock’s fateful “God intends” rape remark on Oct. 23.
Obama carried 58 percent of the female vote in New Hampshire, 55 percent in Ohio, 54 in Virginia, 53 in Florida, 56 in Pennsylvania, 59 in Iowa, 57 in Wisconsin and 51 in Colorado.
The Obama campaign used the Mourdock “rape intends” remark in radio ads in Virginia and Colorado in the final days of the campaign, and he won both states.
“Mourdock’s remarks clearly made waves in the campaign,” said Chris Sautter, a Democrat consultant based in Washington, who added “but I wouldn’t go overboard with the theory.”
Geoffrey Skelley, a researcher for Professor Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia’s Center on Politics, agreed it will be difficult to determine the Mourdock impact nationally.
“I could see it having had an impact in Indiana, but I think we always expected Obama to win women in most places – the question was just by how much,” Skelley said, noting the wide disparity in presidential polling.
The Mourdock issue also surfaced in all the competitive Senate races. Democrats picked up Senate seats in Indiana, Maine and Massachusetts and expanded majority control from 53-47 to 55-45.
No wonder Republican Karen Hughes, former adviser to President George W. Bush, observed, “If another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue. The college-age daughters of many of my friends voted for Obama because they were completely turned off by Neanderthal comments like the suggestion of ‘legitimate rape.’”
Or, as the legendary Hoosier wit Kurt Vonnegut might put it, “and so it goes.”