America's Largest Voting Bloc Is 2012's Great (and Enormously Powerful) Unknown.
When all of the confetti settles and we look back at what was, The Great American Ovary Debate could very well become the deciding issue of the November elections. Candidates, some of whom might not have given a a lot of thought about reproductive issues past a yes or no on abortion find themselves taking positions between the stirrups and delving into the medicine cabinets of the single largest voting entity: women.
An objective observer could logically argue that, based purely on the number of America's affected, unemployment, the housing market, the recession, war, bailouts or a host of other issues would be more important to our nation's welfare as a whole. Yet, if a group such as the Christian Coalition uses its deep pockets to support a candidate and promises enough voters to potentially sway an election, it can affect a political agenda and make the contraception debate a critical part of the race. The challenge for conservatives who want to limit access to contraception, however, is how many of their female membership they can actually deliver versus the number of American voters will take take up arms in opposition.
Sometimes the challenge in marketing is in understanding the difference between what people say motivates them and what actually does. In most cases, the reason one gives for purchase is the same as his/her true motivation. But when it isn't, you're entire marketing effort risks catastrophic implosion. There's the cruise line passenger who says she's on-board for the 6 am water aerobics class when she's really all about the 24-hour buffet. There are the men who claim it's all about the articles, not the pictures in Playboy. And there are the pious conservative women who use or have used birth control who wouldn't fess up to it with a gun to their heads.
Even the best marketing strategies, (especially the political variety), can play expensive tricks on strategists. You can be certain you've chosen the right product asset to hang your hat on, but the back-end sales analysis tells a completely different story. In the field of Politics, the Religious Right is a certainly a powerful force. Voting women, the once sleeping dogs of this political campaign season, are the political marketer's great unknown. What happens on election day is the one and only true test of a contraception message's validity. Unlike other straight forward issues that political campaigns can get a pretty good pulse on, what a woman chooses to tell a pollster or her parish priest and how she votes may be completely different.
Raised a Catholic, I've experienced first hand the way women (including myself) can separate church doctrine from their personal beliefs when we believe strongly enough. The Catholic Church forbids the use of contraception (it's use is a grave/mortal sin), not leaving a whole lot of gray area around the subject. And yet, according to a variety of published reports and my own rather extensive straw poll, the vast majority of Catholic women have used or use some form of contraception. These women go to Sunday Mass, regularly confess their sins and are, to the naked eye, in complete alignment with the Church. Then, these same women go home to their medicine cabinets and take birth control in substantially large numbers, Catholic Church be damned.
When marketers like myself bring a product to retail, we make it our business to know everything about its product assets and challenges, emotional pull, what the competition is doing, the retail environment and, most importantly, the shopper who we hope will purchase it. Contraception is a uniquely personal issue, and its affect on the election remains to be seen. However, if the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood backlash or Rush Limbaugh's Sandra Fluke controversy are any indication, women are willing to take a stand to protect their health choices.
From a safe distance, the contraception debate is almost amusing. Conservative candidates and religious leaders who want to limit access to female contraception could very well be undone by the very women they attempt to govern. (I secretly wonder how many old codgers are steaming mad about ever giving us the right to vote. They probably saw this day coming.)
Conservative groups in particular found power and leverage with so-called wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage in the past. With contraception, however, they've awoken the sleeping giant voting majority who don't want their ovaries to be debated.
Sarah O'Leary is a marketing executive, author, Issues-based Independent, and humorist who splits her time between the West Coast and Texas. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.