Chris O'Meara/AP
President Obama waves to supporters as he takes the stage at a campaign event at Ybor Centennial Park in Tampa, Fla., Thursday.

Confusing polls: Has Mitt Romney closed the gender gap or not?

Mitt Romney has caught up to President Obama among women voters in one poll, but has fallen further behind in another. The truth is unclear, but Obama needs to hold his ground.

The political world woke up Thursday morning to completely contradictory polls on the women’s vote.

The Associated Press finds that the gender gap has all but disappeared from the race for the White House among likely voters. Not only are women now split between Republican Mitt Romney and  President Obama, with each candidate at 47 percent, the AP-GfK poll reports, but also the men’s vote has gravitated toward Mr. Obama, nearly eliminating Mr. Romney’s advantage there. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the poll results for women.]

Bottom line, the race remains close – Romney 47, Obama 45.  

But wait: The latest ABC News/Washington Post daily tracking poll among likely voters, out Wednesday night, finds Obama with a 15-point lead among women, 56-41, while Romney has a 17-point lead among men, 57-40. Overall, the result is another statistical tie – Romney 49, Obama 48 – among likely voters.

Why the big difference? Polling experts note that each poll has its own methodology, and so the two can’t be compared. Each polling outfit has its own criteria for identifying “likely voters,” and weights segments of the population differently. With the election less than two weeks away, polls need to be considered carefully (or sometimes even ignored, when a poll appears to be an outlier).

“There’s just a lot of noise, so it’s hard to figure out what’s going on,” says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Regardless, one point is clear: Obama can’t afford to lose the gender gap that has worked to the benefit of every Democratic presidential candidate since 1980. At a campaign event Friday morning in Tampa, Fla., the battleground region of the biggest battleground state, Obama reached out to women on health care.

“As we saw again this week, I don’t think any politician in Washington – most of whom are male – should be making health-care decisions for women,” the president said at a rally in Centennial Park.

He was likely alluding to the latest gender blowup in the Republican universe, the comment Tuesday by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock (R), who said in a debate that pregnancies resulting from rape are “something God intended.”

Wednesday night, Obama slammed the Mourdock comment on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno: “Rape is rape. It is a crime.”

Romney’s spokeswoman said that Mr. Mourdock’s statements do not reflect Romney’s views, though Romney has stood by his endorsement of Mourdock. Romney allows for a rape exception in his opposition to abortion rights (though running mate Paul Ryan does not).

In a new video out Thursday, the Obama campaign asked: "Mitt Romney's solution to extremism against women? Promote the extremists."

On the stump, Obama has also pounded hard on gender pay equity and on contraception, defending his decision to require religiously affiliated institutions to provide birth control in employee health plans.

At the Republican National Convention, Romney’s wife, Ann, made an overt plea to women – “I love you women!” – in a speech aimed directly at addressing the gender gap that has dogged her husband’s campaign.

Mitt Romney mentions women’s issues far less frequently than Obama, focusing instead on the economy, the No. 1 issue for voters overall. But there does appear to be a gender gap in issue emphasis. A recent poll of swing states by USA Today/Gallup found men concerned about the economy to a higher degree than women.

When asked an open-ended question about the most important issue in the election, three out of four men said either jobs or the economy, and 10 percent cited the budget deficit or balancing the budget. For women, the top concern was abortion, mentioned by 40 percent. Fifteen percent said equal rights, pay, or opportunity.

In Massachusetts, where Romney conducted his career in business, then served as governor, another matter is developing that relates to women. The Boston Globe has been seeking a court release of sealed testimony by Romney in the divorce hearing of a co-worker in 1991. Romney has said, through his attorney, that “he has no objection to letting the public see that testimony.”

Thursday morning, a Massachusetts court ruled that Romney’s testimony can be released. It seems unlikely that the case could become an “October surprise” that influences the outcome of the election. After all, it’s about Romney’s friend, not Romney himself. But in this highly charged, and tight, presidential race, any matter that could influence even a few votes bears scrutiny. And so the media are paying close attention. 

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