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Gender gap daunting for GOP: Why women's vote is key

The gender gap for the next election is daunting for Mitt Romney as President Obama leads the likely GOP nominee among women in major polls. With simply more women voters, can he overcome it between now and November?

By Staff writer / April 3, 2012

Supporters of former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) wait for the start of a campaign event in Shreveport, La. President Obama leads Mr. Romney among women voters by 20 points, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Steven Senne/AP

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Washington

Democratic women are pumped. The Republican Party has just taken an emotionally wrenching detour on an issue no one expected to emerge in the 2012 campaign: birth control. And Democrats believe they have a winning issue that can help President Obama to a second term.

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But it won't be so simple, despite the latest USA Today/Gallup poll that shows President Obama leading Mitt Romney among women in battleground states by 18 points.

Mr. Romney – not culture warrior Rick Santorum – is the likely Republican nominee, and he's focusing his campaign on the economy, not reproductive matters. Jobs and gas prices are what voters care about most, especially independent voters, who will decide the election.

At the heart of the matter is the gender gap. Men and women have diverged in every presidential race since 1980. In 2008, Mr. Obama won 56 percent of the female vote (versus 43 percent for John McCain) and 49 percent of the male vote (to Senator McCain's 48 percent), for a seven-point gender gap. For now, Obama leads Mr. Romney among women in major polls – by 20 points in the latest Pew Research Center poll, fewer in others – and is tied or trailing Romney among men.

The likely question for Obama, then, isn't whether he will get more women than men to vote for him, but how big the margin will be. If Obama is to win, he will need a big women's vote to offset an expected deficit in the men's vote.

"The reason the gender gap is so important is not just the difference in points between men and women, it's that there are more women than men overall, more women registered to vote, and a higher female turnout rate," says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.

Republicans say the blowup over birth control won't harm the party's chances in November.

"I'm not making light of the fact that there was a hit to the party, but the collective damage was probably short term," says Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster. "Do I expect it to be a lingering problem that will hurt us in the fall? No, I don't. The focus will still be on the economy."

Ms. DiVall bases her assessment on recent focus groups she conducted with independent suburban women who voted for Obama in 2008 and are now undecided. For the "Wal-Mart women" – those with no college degree and household income under $50,000 – putting food on the table and gas in the tank was the top concern. For the working college graduates, having enough money for retirement was top of mind.

The birth-control issue exploded in January when the Obama administration announced a rule under health-care reform that would require religiously affiliated employers' insurance plans to cover birth control. Roman Catholic institutions balked, and Obama tweaked the mandate.

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