Romney Owns the War on Women

The latest poll from ABC News and The Washington Post provides another point in President Obama’s upward trend with voters. His approval rating has grown to 50 percent, and his likability—which you can read as an analogue for favorability—dwarfs Mitt Romney’s, 64 percent to 26 percent. The significance of this is still small, but in a head-to-head matchup with the former Massachusetts governor, Obama wins 51 percent to 44 percent. In the overall average, as tallied by Pollster, the president is still underwater—47.1 percent disapproval to 48 percent approval—but he’s still on the upswing.

The big news out of this poll is that it provides further evidence that Republicans have deeply tarnished their brand with women by fighting a loud battle over contraception, defending conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, and siding with GOP governors like Virginia’s Bob McDonnell as they pushed laws that forced invasive procedures on women. The damage is so strong, in fact, that it has tarnished Mitt Romney, who tried as much as possible to stay out of the fight (but was dragged in by distrustful social conservatives). Only 34 percent of voters say that Romney would do a better job addressing women’s issues, and among women themselves, Romney trails by 19 points. This is in line with a recent poll of swing states, where Obama held a 13 point lead over the likely Republican presidential nominee among women.

Romney can rise above female contempt for the GOP, but it depends on his ability to distinguish himself from the party writ large. The problem, of course, is that the things in his record that do show an appreciation for women’s health and autonomy—his support for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights as governor of Massachusetts—are completely anathema to the Republican base. While it’s possible that they will let him tout that aspect of his record in the general election, I doubt it; the Republican base has yet to show electoral flexibility, and there’s no reason to think that will change in the fall. Indeed, if he wins the White House, he will pursue right-wing policies on reproductive health, a fact that will become apparent during the general election (if it isn’t already obvious). Mitt Romney is a generic Republican, and for now, he’s tied to the party as a whole on women’s issues.

At Talking Points Memo, Sahil Kapur notes that Republican leaders have begun a campaign to disavow the fight over contraception coverage, and recontextualize it (again) as a battle over religious liberty. But the odds are definitely not in their favor. For starters, the noise surrounding the fight over contraception was loud and became louder still when Limbaugh denounced one advocate as a “slut.” Too many Republicans—including Romney—are on record acquiescing to or supporting the ugly attacks on reproductive health access.

What’s more, Romney has the misfortune of running for president at the same time that Republican state governments are implementing the most radical elements of the conservative attack on women’s autonomy. In the last three months, GOP legislatures have pushed mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, restrictive laws that criminalize abortion shortly into the pregnancy, and bills that seek to turn health class into a meeting of the Junior Anti-Sex League. Just last week, Governor Scott Walker quietly repealed Wisconsin’s equal pay law—“Money is more important for men," said one sponsor of the law. If voters don’t lump Romney in with these Republicans, then Democrats will do it for them (it helps that, in the case of Walker, Romney was effusive in his praise of the governor).

If the GOP were running a general-election battle against the feckless Democrats of yore, this wouldn’t be a problem. But the Obama campaign, fairly or not, intends to run with the idea that Republicans have launched a war on women. They will devote a substantial portion of their (huge) war chest to defining Romney as another anti-woman reactionary, and for all the success of Ann Romney and other surrogates on the trail, I’m not sure there’s much Romney can do to counter the attack.