Romney Faces a Formidable Gender Gap

Beth Reinhard

CINCINNATI – What do women want?

Another four years of President Obama, according to a new YWCA-sponsored poll that found him leading Republican Mitt Romney by 49 percent to 31 percent. The yawning gender gap mirrors other surveys nationwide and here in Ohio, a hotly contested swing state, and it represents one of Romney’s most pressing challenges in the home stretch before the Nov. 6 election.

Women typically favor the Democratic nominee, but the gender gap popping up in recent polls is larger than expected.  

“Women think President Obama is more in touch with their concerns,’’ said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who supervised the YWCA survey with Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. “They also prefer to see a partnership between the private sector and government, and Obama speaks to that more.”

The president and his allies also have waged one of the most aggressive advertising campaigns on women’s issues seen in a presidential race, asserting that Romney will take away abortion rights, access to contraception and Planned Parenthood funding. In one new ad, a woman says the health clinic saved her life by with an early diagnosis of cancer. Romney “just does not have any idea how many lives he’s devastating,” she says.

In contrast, Romney has mostly appealed to women’s concerns about the economy. A new spot features a mother holding her infant. “Dear daughter,” she says. “Your share of Obama’s debt is over $50,000 and it grows every day.”

The YWCA poll found 18 percent undecided about the election, suggesting that the GOP nominee needs to sweep those female fence-sitters in order to turn the race around. He might have picked up some pointers at Saturday’s all-women town hall meeting in downtown Cincinnati, where a diverse group of about 125 voters gathered to discuss the poll and their attitudes toward the economy, healthcare, the national debt and civil rights. (National Journal was one of the sponsors.)

Jo Ellen McLaughlin, a 38-year-old business consultant who counts herself among the heavily courted independent voters, is going to be a tough sell. Obama led by 5 points among independent voters in the YWCA poll.

“I’m a little disgusted. I don’t trust anybody,’’ said McLaughlin, who backed Obama in 2008. “I’m scared about the economy, and I’m not sure I feel safe with either candidate.”

For 50-year-old Sharron DiMario, the jobs crisis hit home this week when she was laid off from a healthcare non-profit.  “I think this is the most important election in my lifetime,” said DiMario, who is backing Romney. “I think the country is hurting in a lot of ways, not just financially but also spiritually and emotionally.”

In a sign of the pressure on women, nearly 41 percent in the YWCA poll were their household’s primary breadwinner over last four years. Their top priority? Seventy percent cited “a disappearing middle class,” followed closely by preserving Social Security. African-Americans overwhelmingly cited education as a top priority, while Hispanics pointed to healthcare. The telephone survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Gloria Lau, interim CEO of YWCA USA, opened the town hall meeting with statistics reflecting the might of the women’s vote. In 2008, 10 million more women voted than men, according to the U.S Census Bureau. In Ohio, women surpassed men at the polls by 275,000.

Romney is lagging behind Obama by 10 percentage points in the state, partly because of a 25-point gender gap, according to the latest Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times poll. Without Ohio and its treasure trove of 18 electoral votes, Romney’s path to the White House is exceedingly narrow. Early voting starts on Tuesday.

In Virginia, another battleground state where Obama is ahead, both candidates are heavily targeting female voters. Romney recently sent out a mailing touting his commitment to treating Lyme disease, “a massive epidemic threatening Virginia.” That Romney would highlight such a narrow issue rarely associated with presidential races – but one that concerns suburban moms -- reflects his campaign’s efforts to find a unique window into women.

Obama has pursued a more traditional approach by attacking Romney’s positions on women’s issues, and in some cases, stretching the truth. Though Romney wants to overturn the Roe v. Wade court decision legalizing most abortions, he does back exceptions for rape and incest victims, contrary to Obama’s ads. A new Democratic mailing makes the dubious claim that “Romney backs a law that could have banned birth control.”

Pressed about the issue in one of the primary debates in January, Romney said, “Contraception, it’s working just fine, just leave it alone.” One of his rivals at the time, Rick Santorum, had suggested restrictions on birth control would be appropriate.

Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said of the Democratic mailing: “More false and dishonest attacks from President Obama and his campaign can’t hide the president’s failed record over the past four years.”

The high stakes and sense of history was reflected in the setting for the women’s town hall, held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The energy in the high-ceilinged, stone-walled hall of women overlooking downtown Cincinnati certainly seemed strong enough to power a candidate to the White House.