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?

Steven Senne/AP
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.

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.

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.

The tide turned against the GOP when a Republican congressman held an all-male panel on the issue – leaving a female Georgetown Law student, Sandra Fluke, on the sidelines. When conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh called Ms. Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," the issue grew even more toxic for the Republicans. Suddenly, the debate centered on access to birth control and not on religious liberty.

By early March, polls showed women moving back toward the Democrats on the question of who should run Congress. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans won the women's vote for the first time in 37 years, returning control of the House to the GOP.

Democrats are intent on keeping reproductive rights front and center all the way to November. The "Republican war on women" has become a mantra. And they are highlighting efforts in state legislatures across the country to enact new regulations on abortion, including mandatory ultrasounds.

"Women are watching, and they're definitely not sitting this one out quietly," says Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, a political-action committee for Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights.

Membership in EMILY's List has doubled since the GOP retook the House, she says.

The Obama campaign is vigorously defending health reform as an avenue into the women's vote that's broader than the aspect dealing with contraception, though opinion polls show that more women than men oppose "Obamacare." To mark the second anniversary of the law's enactment on March 23, the campaign hosted phone banks of women calling women voters in battleground states and released videos of women who had benefited from the law. The campaign also launched an effort called "Nurses for Obama." The Democratic National Committee sent a million pieces of mail to women in battleground states.

The Obama campaign's goal is to inform women on the law's gender-related benefits – such as a ban on char ging women more than men for health insurance and no copays for mammograms and other health screenings – and build up a constituency for the law.

If all or part of the Affordable Care Act is found unconstitutional, a real possibility, Team Obama hopes to tap into a newly energized base of women who will see their rights under attack.

The GOP isn't standing idly by. The Republican National Committee is running an ad in battleground states slamming Obama for failing to reduce health-care costs as promised. Indeed, average premiums have risen, but only 1 percent of the increase can be attributed to the reform, says the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In the end, Republican strategists are under no illusions on the female vote. "Women are very pro-incumbent," says Kellyanne Conway, pollster for Newt Gingrich. "They don't like to rock the boat unless given a solid reason. But men are so down on him, he'll need 59 or 60 percent of women to win."

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