ASHBURN, Va.—It’s a scary time to be a woman,” says “Jenni,” the young star of one of President Obama’s television ads airing in Virginia and other swing states. “We need to attack our problems, not a woman’s choice.” To hear Democrats tell it, the Republican Party is waging a “war on women” in which abortion rights, birth control, and Planned Parenthood services are under siege.
Republicans counter that the only “war” being waged is by the Obama economy. “Poverty, unemployment, fading hopes. That’s not the change we voted for. There is a war on women in America, and it’s hurting real women every day,” warns an Internet ad from the conservative powerhouse American Crossroads.
But ask female voters in Virginia about these so-called wars, and they look quizzical. The message doesn’t compute. The reason? The wars are largely ginned-up bunk. They’re lines of attack manufactured by political operatives designed to excite the party faithful and pick off undecided voters.
The real war on women is for their votes.
In Virginia and other battleground states, the most open-minded and coveted sliver of the electorate skews female. Women made up 54 percent of Virginia’s electorate in the 2008 election, 1 point more than they did nationally, according to exit polls. Obama ran 7 points ahead of Republican John McCain among women in this state and nationwide, helping him to become the first Democrat since 1964 to carry the Old Dominion and sending him to the White House.
“There’s a war on women over paying for birth control. Are you serious?” —Romney backer Rita Williams
No wonder that Romney’s first campaign stop in Virginia as the presumptive GOP nominee was hosted by a women-owned business in Chantilly. There, he was flanked by a couple of dozen women he commended as “entrepreneurs” and joined by his personable wife, Ann.
Michelle Obama’s first foray for her husband’s campaign into the same Northern Virginia battleground also targeted women. “Protecting women’s health is a mission that has nothing to do with politics,” the first lady told the crowd in Dale City before a stop at Mom’s Apple Pie Co.
The different strategies for persuading female fence-sitters reflect larger truths about the two campaigns. Obama’s reelection bid is grounded in identity politics, as he serves up policies custom-made for different parts of the Democratic base: immigration reform for Hispanic voters; support for same-sex marriage for gay and lesbian voters; college-loan assistance for young people; the auto bailout for union workers; health care and tax reform for progressives; and, of course, equal pay and reproductive rights for women. It’s this last group, however, that may be the most crucial to the president’s prospects. Because of his relative unpopularity with white males, Obama desperately needs as large a share of the female vote as he can secure.
In contrast, Romney—who parts ways with the president on all of these policies—has a single, sweeping message for everyone, women included: I will fix the economy.
“Essentially, the economic message becomes a referendum on Obama, and I think Romney has an advantage there,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. “Obama is trying to peel off people who might be influenced by other issues, like reproductive rights for women. The Democratic message makes a lot of sense mathematically—if we get to this percentage of women we win—but to get to that percentage you need a compelling, overall message.”
Democrats began accusing the GOP of a full-fledged assault on women’s rights back in January, when the first bill introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates would have defined “personhood” as originating at conception and thus set the stage for statewide bans on birth control and abortion. That legislation ultimately failed, but Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a hotly debated measure requiring women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound procedure. Similar battles over abortion and other women’s issues took place in other states.
Meanwhile, a nationwide public outcry forced the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a major breast-cancer charity, to reverse a decision to cut off its funding for Planned Parenthood. Under pressure from conservatives, Obama eased a new requirement that religiously affiliated employers cover birth control in their health insurance plans, directing insurance companies to pay instead.
As the inflammatory state and national debates fed off each other, the “war on women” was born. Heroes and villains emerged; Democrats rallied around Sandra Fluke, the law-school student who sought to testify in Congress about access to birth control, particularly after talk-show host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut.” Republicans pilloried Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen when she quipped that Ann Romney, the mother of five boys, “never worked a day in her life.”
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.