HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.—In the media spin room after this week’s bristling second presidential debate, senior White House political adviser David Plouffe seemed less eager to discuss the headline-making collisions between President Obama and Mitt Romney over Libya and taxes than another moment that attracted far less media attention. That was the back-and-forth between the contenders over access to contraception for women. “I thought the exchange over women’s health was very important,” Plouffe said, “not only for tonight but for the next 21 days.”
Plouffe’s focus on contraception was telling. Since the conventions, jobs, and a related constellation of tax and spending issues, have dominated the dialogue between Obama and Romney.
But much of the modern Democratic coalition—including minorities, young people, and socially liberal (primarily college-educated) white women—is attracted to the party primarily because of its views on noneconomic issues, from immigration to abortion. That seemed very much on the president’s mind this week. During the debate, often before he was prompted by audience questions, Obama repeatedly raised issues like legalizing the presence of young people brought here illegally by their parents, which his rival has opposed; Romney’s call for “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants; pay equity for women; and a constellation of women’s health issues that included Romney’s call to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood and his opposition to the provision in Obama’s health care bill that requires employers to provide no-cost contraception in insurance plans. Romney was uncomfortable discussing all of those concerns.
Obama’s approach during the debate, like Plouffe’s comments after it, signaled that the campaign believes the president must spotlight his contrasts with Romney on such issues if he is to energize his core groups. With Hispanics, the challenge is increasing turnout; polls show Obama maintaining a preponderant lead among them. But with white women, several polls suggest that Obama’s advantage has narrowed or vanished since his disastrous first debate.
Most ominous for Obama is evidence that the slippage has occurred not only among usually Republican-leaning blue-collar white women but also their white-collar counterparts. Largely because most college-educated white women hold liberal views on social issues, the Democratic nominee has carried them in four of the past five presidential elections; in 2008, 52 percent of such women backed Obama. Until Denver, national surveys consistently showed him winning a majority of these white-collar women. Number-crunchers in Romney headquarters believe their candidate is unlikely to prevail unless he can reduce that margin.
Several polls since the Denver debate say that Romney has done just that. Both this week’s ABC/Washington Post national survey and the cumulated results from the past two weeks of Gallup nightly tracking polls found that Obama had fallen behind Romney among college-educated white women and was attracting 45 percent of them or less, according to data provided to National Journal. Usually, Democrats run much more strongly among college-educated than noncollege white women. After that decline, however, both surveys found only a small gap between them. Recent state polls in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Ohio also found Obama losing ground with upscale white women since September.
Although some other national and state polls don’t show a meaningful Romney advance among these women, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says she has seen the trend in her own work. The reason, she said, was that after Democrats had so relentlessly painted Romney as extremist and elitist, at the first debate, “he wasn’t Satan. I think he reassured a lot of women on the economy.”
Romney has also tried to reassure women by softening his rhetoric on social issues. In one new ad, a woman soothingly says, “Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all.” And at the debate, in the exchange that drew Plouffe’s attention, Romney insisted that he doesn’t “believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not.”
Yet, during the GOP primary, Romney unreservedly endorsed legislation from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have allowed all employers, not just religiously affiliated institutions, to opt out of the no-cost contraception requirement in Obama’s health care law if offering such coverage offended their moral or religious beliefs. The head-on conflict between that endorsement and Romney’s debate declaration could provide more fuel for the Obama campaign, which is already targeting the former governor over his views on contraception coverage and Planned Parenthood in battleground-state advertising. Greenberg predicts the doubts among upscale women that Romney “somewhat assuaged” in Debate I will “kick back” after the prominence Obama’s much stronger performance provided these issues in Debate II.
To which, Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, responds in so many words: Bring it on. The Romney campaign believes that concerns about the economy—and, as it stresses in female-targeted advertising, the rising government debt—will trump these values-tinged reproductive issues for women. “That isn’t the most important issue in their minds,” he says. Obama is clearly calculating otherwise. The president isn’t conceding on the economy, but this week’s debate showed he’s raising his bet that issues beyond it can reinforce enough of his coalition to survive Romney’s surge.
This column originally appeared in print as "Back to Hot Buttons."
This article appears in the October 20, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.