What women want: Is it abortion, contraception, and equal pay – or jobs?

The Obama campaign is targeting so-called 'women's issues,' as Romney doubles down on an appeal to women on a promise for more and better jobs. The presidential race could turn on who gets it right.

Dan Marschka/Intelligencer Journal/AP
Ann Romney speaks to a crowd at an Elizabethtown College rally on Monday. Mrs. Romney called on women voters hit especially hard by the recession to rally behind her husband, saying they would have a brighter future under a Mitt Romney presidency.
Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus/AP
This photo released Wednesday by the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus shows the cover of a binder produced in 2002 by the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, listing names of potential female candidates for high-level positions in the state. During Tuesday's debate against President Obama, Mitt Romney referred to the MassGAP notebook in saying that he was sent 'binders full of women,' a comment which touched off a wave of social media parodies.

What do women want?

Aside from not being relegated to binders (just kidding!), the answer to that question, it seems, may very well determine the outcome of the presidential election. And so far, President Obama and Mitt Romney are banking on very different sets of priorities held by the women they’re hoping to win – by which we mean primarily blue-collar, suburban so-called “waitress moms,” who are economically strapped but also tend to be socially moderate on issues like abortion.

Mr. Romney is hoping that those women care, first and foremost, about jobs and the economy. Although he’s been trying to modulate his stance on issues like abortion, saying in a recent interview that he did not know of any anti-abortion legislation he would push for, he’s really urging women to put so-called “women’s issues” on the back burner and vote instead for the candidate they think would do the most for the economy and job creation.

Tellingly, a new Romney ad features a mom talking into the camera about how Romney “doesn’t oppose contraception at all,” and believes abortion “should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother’s life.” She continues, as the camera shows her kids doing their homework: “This issue is important to me. But I’m more concerned about the debt our children will be left with. I voted for President Obama last time. But we just can’t afford four more years.”

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is counting on those “women’s issues” being a top priority for many female voters. And he routinely makes the point that they often are economic issues – equal pay is clearly a pocketbook matter, and paying for your own birth control, if insurance won’t cover it, is a not-insignificant expense for many women.

As for abortion, well, the Obama campaign has a new ad out responding to the above-mentioned Romney ad by showing footage of Romney in a GOP primary debate, being asked: “If Roe v. Wade was overturned and Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions, would you sign it?” Romney responded: “I’d be delighted to sign that bill.” The spot concludes: “Ban all abortions? Only if you vote for him.”

The question is, which argument is more likely to succeed?

According to a recent Gallup poll of women voters in 12 swing states, Obama may have an edge: When asked what they viewed as the “most important issue for women in this election,” the top response by far was abortion, at 39 percent. That was followed by jobs (19 percent), health care (18 percent), the economy (13 percent), and equal pay (15 percent).

However, it’s worth noting that it's unclear which side of the abortion issue those women who chose it as "most important" fall on. And since the question specifically asked women about the most important issue “for women,” not just the most important issue overall, it may have directed respondents to think more specifically about “women’s issues” than they otherwise would have. A previous Gallup poll asking women which issues they viewed as most important found health care was the top response, followed by the deficit and the national debt.

All of which probably means the verdict is still out.

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