Why Presidential Candidates Are Loading Up on Ads About Equal Pay and Abortion

It's the year of the woman

When Donald Trump and Fox News' Megyn Kelly butted heads at the first GOP debate last August, it was the prelude to what would become a dominant topic in this election cycle, and in campaign advertising: women.

"I truly believe there has never been a presidential election where women's issues have been so prominent during almost every moment, on both sides of the aisle," noted Dan Jaffe, group evp, government relations for the Association of National Advertisers.

There's certainly been no shortage of news concerning women—not the least of which are the campaigns of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and former White House aspirant on the Republican side Carly Fiorina. Then, there have been the stories like Fiorina's pride in "every wrinkle" on her face, and Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem's rebuke of female voters for not supporting Clinton. And the subject of women has carried over into campaign ads.

"A day doesn't go by that I don't see one or a handful of Democratic primary ads where the candidates are talking about equal pay, women's choice or women's health," said Elizabeth Wilner, svp, political advertising at Kantar Media.

In fact, according to Kantar, three out of every five advertising dollars (58 percent) spent by Clinton reference women's rights, gender equality or equal pay. (Clinton's talking points clearly helped give her a decisive win against rival Sen. Bernie Sanders in last week's New York Democratic primary, with heavy support coming from women and African Americans, per The New York Times.)

Generally speaking, Sanders has largely skipped the abortion issue in his ads, while some 33 percent of his commercials had to do with equal pay, according to Wilner.

Meanwhile, Republican candidates have produced no ads relating specifically to women's issues outside abortion, Wilner noted.

Then, there's the stink-bomb spot from the Super PAC Our Principles that has women repeating Trump's remarks about women—"fat pig," "bimbo"—and the slut-shaming ad about Melania Trump from the group Make America Awesome.

Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling (PPP), pointed out that recent surveys indicate a marked difference between how women and men perceive Trump. "Among female voters in the overall electorate, 67 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Trump," he noted.

If Trump wins the Republican nomination, it would be historic in regard to female opinion. As Jensen explained, "We don't have historical data going back to 1964, but I would think you'd have to go back to Barry Goldwater to find a candidate for president who won the nomination who was anywhere near that unpopular with women."

As has been reported endlessly in this election year, a considerable age gap exists between Clinton and Sanders, with younger voters favoring the Vermont senator—and that strength among the young carries over to women, too. Overall, Clinton is pulling in some 60 percent of Democratic female voters, while Sanders is attracting 34 percent, according to PPP. "But what's keeping it from being an even more resounding margin is that Sanders is actually beating Clinton with young women," Jensen noted. "Under the age of 45, Sanders has a slight edge, 50 percent to 41 percent [for Clinton]. Then when you look at senior women, Clinton is at 75 percent, to 17 percent [for Sanders]."

Given young people's heavy use of social media, perhaps it's no surprise that Sanders gets a larger share of female Twitter users than Clinton—at 48 percent vs. 43 percent, according to Chris Kerns, vp of research and insights at the social media marketing firm Spredfast. Republican hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz counts 35 percent of his following on the social network as women, and Trump 33 percent.

Women 18-24 make up 22 percent of Sanders' Twitter following, with Clinton closer to 14 percent among the demo, Kerns added. By comparison, Cruz's largest group of women Twitter followers is age 55-plus.

The overall gender divide is significant because historically Democratic candidates win elections if they have strong backing among women, whereas for the Republicans, men are more important. "In this election, in November, it's pretty likely that there will be a gender gap because we've seen this growing over the last 20 years," said Martin Kifer, assistant professor of political science and director of the Survey Research Center at High Point University.

There's also another divide of significance. "Being married or being single is a big deal" in regard to female voters, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "In 2012, Obama beat Romney among single women roughly two to one. That's a huge margin. But Romney actually did a little bit better than Obama with married women."

Why the disparity? Married women skew more affluent, and generally more affluent people lean Republican. Single women are much more likely to advocate issues like gay rights and gun control, in part because many of them live in cities where people tend to have more liberal views.

As they look to tailor their ads to the important constituency of women voters, the candidates would do well to stay away from focusing too much on a single issue, however. Mark Udall, the former senator from Colorado, learned that lesson in 2014 after he heavied up on ads focusing on abortion rights, as Wilner recalled. That resulted in an unfortunate nickname: Mark Uterus.

This story first appeared in the April 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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Janet Stilson is a freelance writer for Adweek.