Both presidential candidates have been laying it on thick. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been pulling out all the stops in courting us ladies. Not that I blame them; we not only out-register and outvote our male counterparts, we are also multi-issue voters, otherwise known as swing voters. Both candidates have their female appeal, whether on the economy, health, or women’s rights. But, Romney is saddled by a serious problem: Bad GOP wingmen. It’s like Romney is that guy at a party who’s chatting up a lady and his wingman, let’s call him Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, saunters up and instead of saying something smooth offends the lady Romney was hoping to close the deal with.
While both presidential candidates desperately want the female vote one of them has the natural advantage; Barack Obama. Today, women are eight to twelve percentage points more likely than men to identify as Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. In every presidential election since 1980 a greater proportion of women than men has preferred the Democratic candidate. This phenomenon has come to be known as the “gender gap.” In 2008 the gender gap was seven percentage points and in 1996 we saw the biggest gender gap ever of 11 percentage points separating Bill Clinton from Bob Dole.
The GOP hasn’t traditionally been popular with female voters, however in the 2010 mid-term election Republicans saw an increase of 16 percentage points among women for Republican candidates. Less than two weeks away from the election, President Obama continues to have an advantage with female voters, however a number of respectable polls show the gender gap shrinking to as little as three percent. It seems Romney has capitalized on the economic concerns of women and has effectively accused the President of being the one waging a war on women, an economic one.
While the top issue of concern for women is the economy, the relevance of women’s issues remains. And it is here that the President has been able to more effectively woo the female vote. Romney knows that he can’t mobilize women based on social issues so his strategy for reaching women has been two pronged: 1.) highlight the economy and 2.) stay far away from women’s issues such as contraception. He has done a relatively good job of highlighting how women have been the hardest hit by a down economy and how his priority is seeing increased job and economic growth. And for the most part Romney has successfully dodged and side-stepped women’s issues such as abortion and equal pay.
But every so often, one of Romney’s GOP buddies pops up and says something profoundly offensive like, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” After these comments by Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, Romney tried to distance himself as far as possible from Akin and even called on him to step out of the race. Just as the Akin incident was starting to fade a bit, out comes another Republican Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock, saying that he opposes abortion even in the case of rape, because pregnancy from rape is “something that God intended to happen.” However, this wingman is going to be harder for Romney to turn away from, given that just a couple of days earlier the Mourdock campaign unveiled an ad where Romney endorses the senate candidate.
With friends like that, who needs the Democrats? Mitt Romney has made a conscious effort to distance himself from the “no abortion under any circumstance” plank of the Republican platform. He has also gone to great pains to say that he does not oppose contraception. And while his “binders full of women” was a poor choice of words, he was ultimately trying to highlight his awareness of increasing gender diversity in the workplace. However, amidst all of this softening on women’s issues, his larger circle of friends will keep him from turning around the gender gap.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.