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.”
And as the economic recovery stalled in the spring and summer, both parties tried to turn the metaphorical battle to their advantage with female voters, leaving many women unsure which way to turn.
“I’m teetering right now,” said Andrea Sandler, a 48-year-old homemaker and one of the few undecided voters at a “Women for Mitt” kickoff in this Northern Virginia suburb. “I feel we should be respectful of women’s bodies. Those issues will influence my decision. I’m also very upset about government spending and the money that comes out of my husband’s paycheck. Where does all that money go?”
It’s no coincidence that both presidential campaigns launched their outreach to women here in Loudoun, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, and in nearby Fairfax. Along with Prince William County, these affluent exurbs of Washington—and their up-for-grabs female residents—have been pivotal to winning Virginia.
“I’ll tell you a little bit about Mitt Romney,” Beth Myers, a top adviser to the Republican nominee, said conspiratorially to about 50 women lunching at a Mexican chain restaurant here in July. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney earned plaudits for recruiting women to top posts, said Myers, his chief of staff then and a top aide now. Romney is happiest when he is with his family, she said, adding that his latest book is dedicated to all of his “born and unborn” grandchildren. “It is the women who are going to make the difference in this election,” Myers insisted at the Women for Mitt event.
In a parallel universe 20 miles away and three months earlier, a senior adviser to the president painted a similarly sympathetic portrait of her boss. Valerie Jarrett reminded hundreds of women crowded into a stuffy campaign office in Falls Church at the “Women for Obama” kickoff that a single mother on food stamps raised the president. “More than anything else,” she said, Obama wants his two daughters to compete on an even playing field. He appointed women to top Cabinet posts, and the very first law he signed makes it easier for women to sue employers for equal pay. “He recognizes that women are not a special-interest group,” Jarrett said.
The jockeying for women is equally intense in Virginia’s Senate race, one of a handful that could decide which party controls the chamber. In one month alone, the press releases from the Democratic campaign included “Tim Kaine to Meet With Women in Alexandria,” “Tim Kaine to Meet With Women Business Leaders in Northern Virginia,” “Tim Kaine to Meet With Women in Prince William County,” and “Tim Kaine Speaks With Women about Jobs and the Economy.” On the Republican side, George Allen’s debut television ads featured three women giving testimonials.
Remember the competition over “security moms,” “soccer moms,” and “NASCAR dads” in previous campaigns cycles? In 2012, the buzzword for those quintessential swing voters is “Walmart moms.” These women with school-aged children are only starting to pay attention to the election contest. They’re hard to reach and probably won’t make up their minds for a while.
So if Virginia is ground zero for the war on women in the 2012 campaign, the Walmart Supercenter off Route 15 in Leesburg could be considered hallowed ground.
DOWN THE AISLES
On a gray, drippy Friday afternoon, a snow-cone truck piping out Jamaican steel-drum music lent a festive air to the massive parking lot. Inside, most of the shoppers were women, many with reluctant kids in tow.
Tricia Organ, 40, shopping for school supplies with her 14-year-old son, A.J., agreed with Republicans that the election will be a referendum on Obama’s first term. “I think he has a lot of good ideas and wants to fix things,” Organ said, even though she voted for McCain. “I don’t think the economy is all his fault, in my opinion. But I haven’t seen the change he’s promised, so I probably won’t vote for him.” Organ doesn’t side with Romney, however, on extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. In a sign that a Democratic line of attack is breaking through, she said, “The rich do seem to be getting richer. And I don’t like the fact that his wife says we’ve seen enough of their tax returns. What are they hiding?”
GOP attacks on Obama’s approach to the economy also have hit their target. Miyoko Hood, 63, did not hesitate to blame Obama for the failure of her son’s home-remodeling business a couple of years ago. “He’s not encouraging business. He wants everyone to depend on the government,” said Hood, who was picking out socks for her mother-in-law.
Susan Miller, 39, who had her 8-year-old daughter on her heels and an infant resting in the front of her shopping cart, isn’t paying much attention to the presidential race yet. She sports tan lines from a recent family trip to the beach. “Politics just gets ugly,” she said. “So I keep my mouth shut.”
Like several other women interviewed at the store, Miller bristled at the new state law that requires women to get an ultrasound before getting an abortion. “I don’t like that they bring up those issues,” she said. “I personally would never have an abortion, but I think women should have that choice.”
Polls suggest the focus on social issues in the Virginia Capitol initially cost Republicans’ support among women. Obama was leading Romney in Quinnipiac University surveys in March and June, largely because of double-digit leads among women. A Washington Post poll in May pegged the gender gap at 18 points. But by mid-July, the two presidential candidates were deadlocked, and Obama’s advantage with women had shrunk to 5 points, according to Quinnipiac.
For the “Jenni” in the Obama ad, the ultrasound law began a political awakening. A 36-year-old mother of three, Jenni Gallagher opposed abortion as recently as three years ago when she miscarried at 16 weeks and saw fetal development firsthand. Now she’s an outspoken defender of abortion rights and a volunteer leader for the Obama campaign in Blacksburg.
“I was a pro-life Democrat and didn’t put much thought into it, but that bill just infuriated me,” Gallagher said in a telephone interview with National Journal. “That they would force that on a woman, not because it was medically necessary but as an act of shame?”
The sweeping debate this year over women’s health care also affected 29-year-old Aranessa Wilson, another campaign volunteer in Virginia. Before getting into the insurance business, Wilson worked in the retail industry. In between jobs a handful of times, she turned to Planned Parenthood for her regular gynecological exam and birth control.“I think the word ‘war’ is a serious word to levy, but I really can’t think of anything else that describes the attacks on women that the GOP has put in their crosshairs,” she said.
But her passion sets her apart from most undecided women, according to research conducted by Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm. The pollsters have been studying “Walmart moms”—women with school-aged children who shop at the mega-store—since 2010. They conducted a focus group with them in June in Richmond, Va., and an online discussion with women from five battleground states, including Virginia.
“We would get a blank stare when we asked about women’s issues,” said GOP pollster Alex Bratty, whose partner, Neil Newhouse, advises Romney. “President Obama is raising an issue that these moms are not talking about. It’s the wrong conversation.”
Even Bratty’s Democratic partner in the study, Margie Omero, agreed that most women are not feeling targeted, although she added that they don’t want the government involved in reproductive decisions. “I think part of the Democratic strategy to talk about abortion and birth control is for motivating the base and for turnout and enthusiasm, not necessarily for reaching swing voters,” she said. “Swing voters are not seeing a war on women. What they want is to make sure candidates understand their life struggles and what they’re going through in a very empathetic way, and if you look at the polls, Obama definitely has the advantage on that.”
The Walmart findings mirror research by Republican pollster David Winston, whose nationwide survey of 1,000 women in June found that 62 percent thought the “war on women” was a distraction from more important issues such as jobs and the economy. Winston, an adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, compared the economy to a fire that’s burning a house down, while health care is like the cracked foundation and the national debt is a broken window. “Nothing really matters until you put the fire out,” Winston said, “and that’s where women are at.”
SOUNDING THE ALARM
Democrats have pursued abortion politics with mixed success in Virginia over the years. Democrat Doug Wilder put the issue at the center of his 1989 campaign for governor to great advantage. His ads in the homestretch of the race featured women expressing fears about his Republican opponent’s antiabortion stand, helping Wilder close the deal with moderates. The issue was particularly timely because a recent Supreme Court ruling had opened the door to states’ placing restrictions on abortion.
But since then, the issue has not proved as potent. Democratic gubernatorial candidates who hammered their Republican opponents on abortion—most recently, McDonnell’s challenger in 2009, Creigh Deeds—fell short.
Interviews with voters in sundresses and skirts at the Women for Mitt kickoff explain why. Rita Williams, 57, said she’s offended by Democrats’ use of the term “war on women.” She recalls the days when women’s career options included secretary, nurse, and teacher. She picked nurse. “These ads I’ve seen about women are ridiculous,” Williams said. “There’s a war on women over paying for birth control. Are you serious? That’s politics at its worst.”
Another nurse at the same table, 50-year-old Rosemary Bolton, added, “I’m insulted when politicians cater their language to different groups.” But when asked how she could criticize Obama’s outreach to women when she was eating lunch provided by the Romney campaign while female surrogates explained why he should get their votes, Bolton retorted, “This isn’t a group of women whining when they don’t get their way.”
In other words, some of the outrage stars of Obama’s campaign ads. “I think Mitt Romney is really out of touch with the average woman’s health issues,” says “Dawn” in an Obama ad airing in Virginia and other swing states. “Alex” adds, “This isn’t the 1950s. Contraception is so important to women. It’s about a woman being able to make decisions.” Another Obama spot attacks Romney for supporting “a law that outlaws all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest,” citing his response to a question at a primary debate about signing a bill outlawing all abortions. Romney said he would be “delighted ... but that’s not where we are.” These decisions should be up to the states, he said. What’s more, the former Massachusetts governor wrote a Boston Globe op-ed in 2005 that explicitly laid out his support for exceptions for rape, incest, and saving the life of the woman.
But if the Obama campaign can be accused of trumping up evidence to alarm women, the Romney camp has also relied on misleading claims to make its case. At the event with Beth Myers, Virginia lawmaker Barbara Comstock, a lawyer and a Republican operative, said that women account for 90 percent of all jobs lost under President Obama—800,000 in all—and that female participation in the workforce is the lowest in 20 years. “His economic policies have been particularly harsh on women,” she said.
The problem with these figures is that they include job losses from January 2009, a particularly devastating month, when Obama had just taken office. Moreover, for men, the decline in employment began earlier in the recession, before Obama became president. Women took the economic hit later on. The labor-participation rate was indeed higher under previous presidents, as the feminist movement and economic forces pushed women into the workforce in greater numbers.
But despite his campaign’s claims about job losses, Romney so far has stayed away from tailoring an economic message specifically for women, preferring a more sweeping attack on Obama’s economic stewardship. (Conservative super PACs such as Crossroads, on the other hand, haven’t been so restrained.) Whether Romney’s macro approach on the economy can prevail over Obama’s criticisms of Romney’s policies on equal pay and women’s health will largely determine which candidate will prevail. Darlene Tousignant, a 44-year-old substitute teacher with three children, said Obama’s leadership has disappointed her, but she added that she doesn’t like the health care plan Romney spearheaded as governor of Massachusetts, either. “I don’t think either one can really deliver,” Tousignant sighed as she pushed her cart through Walmart in disgust.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.