The brazen courting of Hispanic voters at both nominating conventions was matched only by the even more ostentatious appeals to female voters. “I love you, women!’’ Ann Romney shouted, in one of the only false notes in her otherwise well-received speech in Tampa. Sandra Fluke, the birth-control advocate whose dubious claim to fame is attracting insults from talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, delivered a prime-time screed at the Democratic convention that seemed inspired by the dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale.
But although both conventions featured a bevy of elected officials in heels vouching for their respective nominees, only President Obama and his allies are putting real money behind women’s issues. Even before the delegates went home, his campaign began airing the fifth—fifth!—in a series of attack ads targeting Mitt Romney’s opposition to abortion rights, Planned Parenthood funding, and insurance coverage for birth control. “Mitt Romney’s position on women’s health? It’s dangerous,” says the unnamed star of the television ad airing in the pivotal battlegrounds of Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia. She adds, “I don’t think women’s health issues have faced a crisis like this in decades.” Planned Parenthood this week upped its television-advertising budget to $4.6 million, with the latest spots in Ohio and Virginia declaring, “Mitt Romney will turn back the clock for women.”
Wasn’t this supposed to be an election about jobs, jobs, jobs?
“I’ve never seen a presidential campaign with this heavy an emphasis on women’s issues,” said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster. “It’s very nontraditional.”
Obama has yet to see a full return on his investment. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows him leading Romney among female likely voters by only 5 percentage points. Gallup’s tracking poll this week pegged the gender gap at 9 points, while the most recent CNN/ORC International survey put Obama’s lead among women at 11 points. Even that’s not good enough, considering that Obama beat John McCain by 13 points among women in 2008 and that his popularity with men has declined since then.
“Obama is trying to have a conversation that women don’t want to have right now,’’ said Republican pollster Alex Bratty, who helped conduct focus groups of “Walmart moms’’ in several major cities. Rarely, if ever, did these swing voters bring up traditional women’s issues.
Republicans are right when they point to a simple explanation for Obama’s estrogen-heavy focus: He’s trying to distract attention from his economic weaknesses. If the economy was roaring, Obama wouldn’t be focusing on Romney’s policies on women’s health care. “The Democrats had barely finished sweeping up the confetti and abortion pamphlets Friday when the Labor Department released the August jobs report,” quipped former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in an attempt to change the subject.
Voters could be forgiven for getting the impression, at times, that Obama does not share their obsession with the economy. On a recent evening in a Northern Virginia living room (mine), the president’s abortion-related attack ad was immediately followed by a Romney spot that claims he’ll create hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s a message that would appear to weigh more heavily on undecided voters than Romney’s opposition to contraception coverage in employee health plans.
“Women are not going to vote for someone because they are giving out free birth control,’’ said Alice Stewart, a spokeswoman for the conservative Concerned Women for America. “Women are the ones putting gas in the tank and balancing the checkbook. Their issues are much broader than the Obama campaign gives them credit for.”
Still, there are strong incentives for Obama’s continued focus on women’s issues. It serves two purposes: motivating the Democratic faithful and appealing to undecided voters, who tend to be female. Many of these female swing voters backed Obama in 2008 but voted for Republicans for Congress in 2010.
In 2012, the president is seeking to frame the election as a choice between two candidates, not as a referendum on his first term. Contrasting their policies on abortion is an obvious way for Obama to reinforce the choice facing voters.
What’s more, Republicans have handed Democrats plenty of fodder. From the new law in Virginia requiring women seeking abortions to get ultrasound exams, to the GOP’s crusade against Planned Parenthood, to Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape,” the “war on women” line of attack writes itself.
“A whole lot is on the line,’’ said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “No one thought we would be sitting here in 2012 wondering if contraception will be available.”
Like the ads from the Obama campaign and its allies that cast Romney as a greedy corporate raider, the reproduction-related attacks help to cast the lesser-known Republican nominee in a negative light. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund has identified 200,000 swing voters in Virginia and about 150,000 in Ohio who have favorable views toward its message.
“It’s not that this election will be won or lost on abortion rights, but these issues send a very strong signal to women,’’ said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “I have zero concerns that Obama’s focus on women’s issues will backfire.”
Even so, even the most educated voter would have a hard time distinguishing progress from pandering. If Obama wins—which he can’t do without an extraordinary lift from female voters—the “war on women” line of attack will be hailed as a breakthrough. If he loses, he will be mocked for treating women as a special-interest group.
You’ve come a long way, baby?
This article appears in the September 15, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.