It’s always an open question as to whether Beltway-based controversies spread out to the public at large. Etch A Sketch is an incredibly apt way of describing Mitt Romney’s persona, but so far, the comment has gone unnoticed by those who don’t follow politics for entertainment or for a living (two overlapping spheres).
By contrast, the controversy over contraception has definitely made its way onto the political landscape. At the very least, ordinary Americans know that the Obama administration mandated “free” birth control for women, Republicans spoke out in opposition, and—most important—conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh denounced supporters of the administration as “sluts.” And together with the previous fight over the Komen Foundation’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, the proposed bill in Virginia that forced transvaginal ultrasounds (read: penetration) on women who received abortions, this knowledge grew into something more dangerous for Republicans—a belief, among many Americans, that the GOP is hostile to women.
You can see how this might be a problem for the Republican Party in the latest Swing States Poll, conducted by USA Today and Gallup. According to the survey—which polled registered voters in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin—President Obama wins more than 60 percent support among women under 50, an increase of more than 10 percent since the last poll, in February.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has seen a corresponding drop in his support among women, from 44 percent to 30 percent. Among all women, Obama has an 18-point lead over the former Massachusetts governor, and overall—because of this widening gap—Obama wins 51 percent support among swing state voters to Romney’s 42 percent. Gallup hasn’t released cross tabs for the poll, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of Obama’s gain came from white women, who tend to break evenly among the two parties.
A small change in either direction among white women can make a big difference to the outcome of the election. Put another way, if the GOP’s opposition to reproductive health access stays in the political conversation, then it’s standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, has a much harder time winning support from women, even with his wife on the trail.
Indeed, for as much as Romney wants to focus on the economy and leave social issues by the wayside, it’s not clear whether that’s possible for his campaign. Conservative voters distrust the former Massachusetts governor just enough so that he might have to show his loyalty with declarations on abortion, contraception, and other areas of women’s health. Already, he has pledged to take federal funding away from Planned Parenthood, and I expect him to repeat the promise during the general election.
What’s more, there’s the question of state Republican lawmakers. Romney’s campaign can coordinate with national Republicans, and keep them from proposing legislation that would harm his appeals to moderate and independent voters (Paul Ryan’s latest budget might prove to be the exception). The same can’t be said for Republican parties on the state-level, which have been eager to propose draconian legislation on reproductive health. Arizona, for instance, has passed a law that treats life as beginning with “conception”—effectively, the point where a man ejaculates—and bans abortion 18 weeks into a pregnancy.
As long as these politicians pursue radical anti-abortion laws, and keep the issue in the public mind, Romney will have a hard time convincing Americans that he isn’t cut from the same cloth, while also reassuring conservatives that he is.
It’s worth noting one other point, which will likely get lost in today’s coverage of the woman-driven gender gap—if there’s anything that ties those swing states together, it’s that they’ve all seen significant job growth over the last three months. Virginia’s unemployment rate, for example, has dropped to 5.7 percent—down from 6 percent at the beginning of the year. Likewise, Ohio’s unemployment rate is down to 7.6 percent, and Colorado’s unemployment rate is down to 7.8 percent. On the whole, the unemployment rate has dropped in 29 states, the swing states included. It’s natural that those voters would see Obama in a nicer light.
The last time a Democratic president ran for reelection, he was saved by a radical and intransigent Republican Party, a significant gender gap, and an improving economy. We can assume a radical GOP. If the economy continues to grow, and women continue to leave the Republican Party, then we might see something of a repeat.