Mitt Romney may not be able to single-handedly close the gender gap that favors Democrats. But narrowing the divide could help him win the White House.
Mitt Romney may not be able to single-handedly close the gender gap that favors Democrats. But narrowing the divide could help him win the White House. Steven Senne/AP
In case you haven't figured it out by now, female voters are seen as potentially holding the key to the White House in 2012.
President Obama's hopes of being re-elected very much reside in the hands of women, the same part of the electorate whose strong support in 2008 helped make his victory possible.
Knowing that helps explain all the charges from Democrats that Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, is part of a larger Republican "war on women" because of his conservative stance on reproductive rights.
It also explains Republican counterattacks that it's Obama who has waged a war against women. Their evidence? That the president's alleged mishandling of the economy has caused women to lose more jobs, and to regain them more slowly, than men during his time in office. (While that is superficially true, it's also deceptive.)
So think of all the accusations of a "war on women" as part of what is really a "war for women voters" being waged by both Democratic and Republican campaigns.
Of course, wars often produce instances of friendly fire. One such in the Obama-Romney fight was Obama supporter Hilary Rosen's shot that Ann Romney "hasn't worked a day in her life."
The outrage from the right, and the effort by Obama White House and campaign officials to distance themselves from the right, left Rosen as the casualty on this particular battlefield. If there was an Obama White House photo op in her future, it's gone now.
But the Rosen tempest is small potatoes compared with the enormousness of the problem facing Romney.
A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll poll conducted in 12 battleground states showed Obama opening up a 19-percentage-point lead over Romney among women, a monstrous gender gap. That was up 7 points from earlier in the year. That clearly was trending in a terrible way.
Since 1980, Republican presidential candidates have received fewer votes from women than their Democratic rivals. It was 11 percentage points, for instance, in 1996 when President Bill Clinton won re-election against the Republican nominee, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
Exit polls from 2008 demonstrate how being on the positive side of that gap helped put Obama in the White House. Obama and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, pretty much split the male vote, Obama 49 percent to McCain's 48 percent.
But Obama won the female vote by 13 percentage points. The president got 56 percent to McCain's 43 percent.
Outperforming McCain in attracting female voters would go some way toward helping Romney capture the White House. But he has much ground to cover just to get to where McCain was in November 2008.
Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said Romney's problem with female voters is compounded by the fact that there are 10 million more female voters than male voters. They vote at a higher rate and skew Democratic:
CARROLL: "There's a party identification difference now between women and men ... women are just more Democratic than they are Republican, more Democratic than men are. So any Democrat starts with an advantage among women and any Republican starts with a disadvantage. So it's a big gap to make up. The Republican strategy is to try to minimize that gap as much as possible.
Carroll said Romney is taking on the problem in probably the best way left open to him, talking about the economic issues. Because he had to move right on social issues to counter Rick Santorum, before the former U.S. senator quit the race, those are issues best avoided.
"I think he will score some blows against the Obama administration on economic issues. The Obama administration has some vulnerability there. He will score some points. I think the biggest challenge for Romney in talking about the economic issues with women is going to be relating to them and relating to their lives.
"What pollsters will always say about women voters from their polling and focus groups is that women are concerned with their sort of kitchen table economic issues. Which means, they want someone who can talk to them about the economic issues in the way that people would talk about them sitting around a kitchen table. They want to hear about what the candidate is going to do to affect the issues as they relate to them and their lives.
"And that's where I think Romney faces the biggest challenge. Because he's not proven himself very skilled or adept at relating to the average voter yet. And it's not clear that he'll get a lot better. Maybe he will; maybe he'll improve. But it's hard. There's not much in his life experience that he can probably draw upon to relate to some of the economic struggles people are facing. ... He's got to come across as somehow authentic and understanding and able to relate to the average American woman who is faced with a series of economic issues in terms of her own household and family situation."