SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
As the candidates battle it out, there's a key fact always worth remembering: 53 percent of those who cast votes in the last presidential election were women.
Michelle Bernard is a political analyst who studies voting trends among women. She is the founder and CEO of the conservative Bernard Center for Woman, Politics, and Public Policy. Thanks for being with us.
MICHELLE BERNARD: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Let's try and clear this up. Is there a women's vote?
SIMON: Are you comfortable with defining it for us?
BERNARD: I am. I'm absolutely comfortable with defining women as a voting bloc. Every four years, you start hearing about voting blocs. And the reason we hear so much about women, and we hear so much about independent voters, is that those are the voters that count the most because elections matter to them. And they go out, and they vote.
SIMON: And as generalization, have women been interested in this Republican primary season?
BERNARD: I think women are interested in this primary season because there are so many social issues that women felt were behind us, and would stay behind us for a very long time. And it's been, I would say, probably a shock to see issues such as birth control and contraceptives become part of the public debate again, particularly when the economy is ailing.
SIMON: What's your analysis of why that's happened? Because a few months ago, I expect, we both would have agreed the economy was the overwhelming issue.
BERNARD: Yeah, absolutely. And I still think that the economy is the overwhelming issue. I think what we see right now during the Republican primary is Republican candidates talking about the issues that are the most comfortable for them. So for example, you will see - Rick Santorum seems to be a lot more comfortable talking about social issues than he is talking about the economy. The problem is, I don't know, necessarily, that that will do well for him in a general election.
SIMON: How have women who have been voting in the Republican primaries, or registered an interest in the Republican primaries, reacting to - it must be said - all the guys talking about issues like abortion and contraception?
BERNARD: I think overwhelmingly, you will hear more women than not absolutely dismayed. You know, I'm going to take a step back. In the 2008 election, we saw the advent of what we call the red state feminist...
BERNARD: ...the women who believed that Sarah Palin spoke for them. These are women who, for example, felt like it was OK to stay home and raise children, and didn't want to feel as if they were being demeaned because they weren't out in the workforce. Even those right-of-center women, most polls are showing, are absolutely appalled.
SIMON: Um - I have to ask you about Rush Limbaugh.
SIMON: And we're going to play something he said this week - his comments about Sandra Fluke. This was the Georgetown University student who said that she felt her school - Catholic school should cover birth control.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")
SIMON: I'm not going to make any attempt to set this up except to say, what's your reaction?
BERNARD: I'm stunned. Full disclosure, I have to say I know Rush Limbaugh. I don't know him well, but I have sat down and spoken with him, one on one, and in a private setting have found him to be a very different person than the Rush Limbaugh that we just listened to. And there really are no words to describe how sad it makes me here.
SIMON: Is Mr. Limbaugh such an influential figure that Republican candidates for president need to react when he says something like this?
BERNARD: I would hope that no political candidate feels that any media personality is so important that they have to react when that person says something.
That being said, when it comes to issues of sexism, of racism, of any of the isms where someone is speaking about someone in a negative way solely on the basis of their race, their ethnicity or their religion, I think people who are running for the highest office of the land have a moral obligation to say something about it, because it is an issue of character. And the people who are going to go out and vote for you - I believe - want to know: Do you agree, or do you disagree?
SIMON: What issues would you like to hear the candidates still in the race start annunciating?
BERNARD: I would love to hear the candidates really talk about the economy. It really is the only thing that matters. How are we going to put Americans back to work? We have had very little talk about the importance of the least amongst us; people who are chronically unemployed or underemployed, who live under the poverty line and for whom the American dream seems to be a very cruel joke.
I would love to hear the candidates talk about those people, and what we do to put them back to work so that they can feel that the American dream is something that they can aspire to as well.
SIMON: Michelle Bernard, president and CEO of the conservative Bernard Center, thanks so much for being with us.
BERNARD: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.