JEFF GREENFIELD: Welcome to “Need to Know.” Thanks for watching. It’s been true for decades: there’s a clear “gender gap” when it comes to politics. Women tend to vote more Democratic; men tend to vote more Republican. But there’s a new twist to the split this year. After the midterm elections in 201o gave Republicans political control in states across the country, new laws and regulations in many of those states sought to impose sharp restrictions on abortion and, in some cases, contraception. That effort, in turn, has reshaped the battle for the women’s vote in key battleground states; Democrats are making these issues central to their case, while Republicans are pointing to the still fragile economy. Need to Know’s Mona Iskander traveled to the key state of Virginia and filed this report.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: Jenni Gallagher has a lot on her plate. She juggles the demands of raising three young children while devoting her free time as a first-time volunteer for the Obama campaign here in Blacksburg, Virginia.
JENNI GALLAGHER: My name is Jennie Gallagher and I’m one of the team leaders here in Blacksburg.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: Gallagher says she’s motivated by Obama’s policies to help middle class families like hers. But she says she was also deeply affected when she heard about a bill that was introduced in the Republican dominated Virginia General Assembly last winter.
JENNI GALLAGHER: When that bill came about I– oh, I was so angry.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: That bill would have required that a woman have an ultrasound 24 hours prior to an abortion. For many women that would have meant an internal trans-vaginal procedure. It was one of several bills proposed, that critics say were designed to curb abortion.
JENNI GALLAGHER: I used to be pro-life. And– and I really feel like what’s been happening, especially here in Virginia in the last year with women’s issues, has really caused me to take a step back and look at what I believe. You know, I still, I wish that abortion wasn’t– necessary. It’s not a choice that I personally don’t think I would ever make. But I– I will support another woman’s right to do that.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: Opponents of the bill staged a silent protest outside the state capitol… many claimed that the enforced, internal procedure that the bill was calling for was an invasion of privacy. Some went as far as calling it “state sanctioned rape.” The bill was eventually amended, but protests continued because the state now requires women in Virginia to undergo a non-internal abdominal ultrasound 24 hours prior to an abortion except in cases of rape or incest.
JENNI GALLAGHER: The legislation and, you know, and then comments that have come out of the Republican Party recently, they just reaffirmed that I know where my vote needs to go I know who I need to vote for and it’s not Mitt Romney.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: In fact, Gallagher volunteered to appear in an Obama campaign ad designed to make women’s reproductive rights a central issue in Virginia in the upcoming election.
Campaign ad: Jenni: I never felt this way before, but it’s a scary time to be a woman, Mitt Romney is just so out of touch.
Narrator: Mitt Romney opposes requiring insurance coverage for contraception and Romney supports overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Jenni: There’s so much we need to do. We need to attack our problems. Not a woman’s choice.
MONA ISKANDER: I mean, that was a very, very public way of expressing your support for him.
JENNI GALLAGHER: Yeah.
MONA ISKANDER: Why did you do that though? Why so public?
JENNI GALLAGHER: I was a little hesitant because– choice is such a– divisive issue. And I was– I was a little bit worried that my family or I would– would face– some kind of attacks, you know, f– from that. But– I don’t– I– I couldn’t not do it.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: President Obama already enjoys a commanding lead among women in swing states, including here in Virginia where he leads Mitt Romney by 12 points. And in a state where more than half of registered voters are women, the Obama campaign is working hard to hold on to that lead, especially as he trails Romney among men by 6 points.
AD EXCERPT: He’s made his choice, but what choices will women be left with?
The Obama campaign has been running ads focused on Romney and Ryan’s positions on abortion and contraception. They’ve also tried to nurture a grassroots “Women for Obama” group in Virginia … Jenni Gallagher works closely with the group and supports their efforts.
MONA ISKANDER: How important are those types of issues to you?
JENNI GALLAGHER: I think in 2008 I would have said, “Not at all.” Because, you know, when you– when you have something that has never been threatened you just take it for granted, right? Like I– women’s issues were completely off my radar. I said before that– that it’s– it’s a scary time for me as a woman and as– a mother of a daughter. And that could not be more true. I don’t wanna see the rights that we have– you know, t– taken back 50 or 60 years. These fights have already been fought by women. We don’t need to do it again.
KATHERINE WADDELL: I thought that we’d already fought those battles. And– and I had no idea that we would be redoing this.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: Katherine Waddell is a native Virginian and a grandmother of three. When the ultrasound bill controversy erupted earlier this year, she and 7 other women got together and formed the Women’s Strike Force, a bi-partisan Virginia political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice candidates from either party in the 2013 Virginia elections.
MONA ISKANDER: You were down there when this bill was being considered, why were you there? What’s your stake in this?
KATHERINE WADDELL: Because I’m pro-choice. Because I’m– I believe if you ask anyone the question, “Who should make decisions about women’s reproductive healthcare, a woman and her doctor or the government?” You’ll find that most people will answer, “A woman and her doctor.” And in talking to my doctor, my OBGYN, she has said that they have now gotten to the point where they are interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: But Waddell is not your typical pro-choice Democrat.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: She’s actually a long-time Republican who for many years worked for state politicians. She also served a two- year term as a delegate in the Virginia General Assembly. But as a board member of an organization called the Republican Majority for Choice, she has felt deeply conflicted over the direction of her party.
KATHERINE WADDELL: I believe in a limited government. And I think that when you start getting involved in what’s happening in people’s personal lives, then that’s no longer limited government. That’s big government invasion and I’m very opposed to that. I used to go to meetings and I would say, “I am passionately Republican and I’m passionately pro-choice.” Now, it’s very difficult for me to say, “I’m passionately Republican.”
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: She has voted Republican in past presidential elections, but she says the rhetoric coming from the party over the last few months regarding women’s issues has her struggling with who to vote for this time around.
MONA ISKANDER: Where do you see yourself now? I mean, do you feel let down by your party?
KATHERINE WADDELL: Absolutely I do. They are making it difficult for women who support women’s reproductive rights. So, I’m having a hard time weighing all of those things and making my choice. And I probably will do that when I go into the– into the booth on– in November.
AD EXCERPT: Under Obama’s economy, it’s just not getting better.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: The Romney campaign is determined to get women to focus not on reproductive issues but on the weak economy and on the president’s handling of it as the national unemployment rate remains consistently above 8 percent. Romney’s first campaign stop in the state as the presumptive Republican nominee this past spring was at a woman owned business in Northern Virginia. And the campaign has launched ads like this…
AD EXCERPT: Dear Daughter, Welcome to America. Your share of Obama’s debt is over $50,000 and it grows every day..
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: And the campaign has launched ads like this, making the argument that women have suffered disproportionately in this economy..
AD EXCERPT: More women are unemployed under Obama. More than 5.5 million women can’t find work.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: On the ground, Romney volunteers get together to drive home that message.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: On this Monday night in Henrico County just outside Richmond, a “Women for Mitt” phone banking event is in full swing with women making calls to other women… asking questions not about abortion or contraception, but about the economy.
Some women here are volunteering for a presidential campaign for the first time.
Elizabeth Butler is one of them. She’s a stay at home mom with two children. Butler’s husband owns a small advertising company and their concerns center around keeping costs down for the business and staying within their means at home.
MONA ISKANDER: The campaigns are trying very hard to get women voters on their side. As a woman what are your biggest concerns?
ELIZABETH BUTLER: You know– it all kind of comes back to the economy for me, that the economy is doing well. We don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know — with the tax cliff coming in January whether, you know, we’ll have to pay a lot more, or whether we can just sort of budget the same way we are now.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: Butler says she’s heard Obama ads targeting women… but that as a pro-life Republican, she agrees with Romney’s stances on reproductive issues. But at the end of the day, they aren’t at the top of her list of concerns in the coming election.
ELIZABETH BUTLER: When I look at what’s happening in our country and the amount of crisis that we’re having right now it– it’s just not registering. I don’t– women aren’t talking about that. So it’s not that they aren’t interested in that. You know, every now and then you have, you know, a cocktail with friends and, you know, have a good discussion about it. But– women just aren’t talking about reproductive rights. Women certainly are not considering abortion to be a top discussion point for this campaign.
MONA ISKANDER: But some women would say, “these are issues that we can’t let go to the side. That these are, you know, very important to be discussed right now.”
ELIZABETH BUTLER: Right. And those are the folks that are continuing to bring it up. And that’s okay. It’s okay to talk about it.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: Back in Blacksburg, Jennie Gallagher and the other Obama volunteers are gearing up for the last couple of months of campaigning. At this organizational meeting, one of the topics they discuss: women’s reproductive issues.
MONA ISKANDER: The Romney campaign says that these social issues, pertaining to women’s reproductive rights are– are kind of a distraction. That they’re taking away from the real issues like the economy. What do you say to that?
JENNI GALLAGHER: I say that that’s completely false. I mean, we– we do not shy away from the president’s record on the economy. And– and as far as the women’s issues being a distraction– that’s something (LAUGH) that a man would say, you know. I do not feel like my rights are a distraction, you know. And when I talk about women’s issues I don’t just mean choice. All of these issues are women’s issues. Like my ch– children having money to go to college, that is a women’s issue. Having access to healthcare for myself and for my children that I can afford, that is a woman’s issue.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: For Elizabeth Butler, talk of reproductive issues takes away from what she thinks are more pressing concerns. And she believes that the attacks on the Republican party are unjustified.
MONA ISKANDER: Some women’s groups have said that there’s a war on women being waged right now by the Republican Party. Do you agree with that?
ELIZABETH BUTLER: Well, if there is a war on women I’m definitely not feeling it. I mean, the– the women that I interact with are– they like the Republican Party. The Republican Party represents the values that we have and the values that we’re trying to teach our children.
MONA ISKANDER [narration]: As for Katherine Waddell, she says she will continue to devote her time and energy to keeping women’s reproductive rights front and center.
MONA ISKANDER: We spoke to a few women who said, yeah, they– that they have concerns about reproductive rights but this is not the right election for that. That this is all about the economy.
KATHERINE WADDELL: Sure, jobs and the economy are important, but so are women’s reproductive rights and women’s access to good healthcare from breast exams to pap smears, all of that. I don’t think any woman can dismiss women’s reproductive rights and say that this is not the right campaign for that. It’s always the right campaign for that.
JEFF GREENFIELD: For a broader perspective, I’m joined now by Elaine Kamarck, a veteran of six Democratic presidential campaigns, and author of “Primary Politics,” an in-depth guide to the presidential nominating process. For the past 15 years, she’s been a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Welcome, Elaine.
ELAINE KAMARCK: Thanks, it’s nice to be here.
JEFF GREENFIELD: When we talk about the gender gap and women’s issues, the tendency is to focus on issues like abortion. Fundamentally, is that why women tend to vote Democratic more than Republican?
ELAINE KAMARCK: Fundamentally, I think it’s an economic issue. Women have always been more economically insecure than men. If you’re a mother with 3 little kids and your husband walks out, you have a problem. And therefore women have always had greater appreciation for the social safety net, for the role of government in helping people who are in trouble. So I think it’s fundamentally economic but I do think that abortion and rights issues are an important part of the equation.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Let me just flip this for a minute. Why do men tend to be more Republican?
ELAINE KAMARCK: I think men tend to be more Republican because they feel that they are the commanders of their fate. And it’s men who inhabit the rugged individualism that is so American and so men tend to think I can do this all by myself, I don’t need any help etc. And I’m in charge of my life, my family etc. Women are more vulnerable and mostly because they’ve got children with them. If you’ve got 3 little kids hanging on your skirts, you can’t run as fast. And I think women have always had a different outlook on that.
JEFF GREENFIELD: So that when someone says “ I’m here from the government, and I’m here to help”, for a lot of women that’s not the punchline to a joke.
ELAINE KAMARCK: That’s exactly right (laughs).
JEFF GREENFIELD: Now, ever since 1980 when the Republican party took a very tough, hard stance on abortion, I’ve heard people, like the woman in this piece, say “you know I’m a Republican but I’m pro-choice and that’s not what I want to hear.” But the fact is there have been 5 Republican candidates for President who’ve been elected. With that “no exceptions” rule right there in their platform, which I’m going to talk about later. Explain that.
ELAINE KAMARCK: Well, I think that people don’t really believe that people aren’t really going to do anything about this. And in fact those 5 Republican presidents didn’t spend any time or any political capital on trying to restrict abortion rights. In fact I think the fact that there’s been so much inaction from people who say they are going to do something about abortion has probably led the pro-life segment of the Republican party to kind of go off the deep end on a couple of issues…life the vaginal probes for people who want to have an abortion.
You know that backfired on them and I think other things that we heard in this campaign from Rick Santorum for instance, they ended up backfiring on the Republicans, but I suspect it’s probably frustration on the part of the real zealots that the candidates who say they are for them never in fact deliver.
JEFF GREENFIELD: On the Democratic side it seemed to me at the Convention that the party really went all in on this issue. There was no modulation about this and in fact one of the nights of the Convention seemed to be devoted to this issue. That didn’t happen by accident, so what does that tell us about what the Democrats think about this issue?
ELAINE KAMARCK: Well I think the Democrats think that the Republicans have gone out on the deep end and are going to wake up this sleeping giant of an issue. You know prior to these primaries this was going to be an election not about abortion or any of the social issues, this was going to be an election purely about the economy. Then you had this kind of crazy Republican primary where you had very far out statements on the part of a lot of people trying to run for president, not to mention people like Todd Akin who’s the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri who thinks that women when they are raped, can’t get pregnant. Little looney, okay. And you had a party kind of veering way off to the right. And it woke up that issue, surprisingly.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Is there a danger on the Democratic side that by going all in on this ‘we’re for abortion rights under any and all circumstances”…is there a danger for the Democrats? You know you’ve been a person who has warned the Democratic base, you know, watch it on some issues.
ELAINE KAMARCK: Of course. In fact, this year the Obama administration got in trouble over the issue of whether or not his healthcare plan would require Catholic institutions to cover contraception. And so yeah, every time either party moves from that mushy middle where most of Americans are, they do in fact get themselves into trouble. So Democrats I think need to go back to Bill Clinton’s formulation about abortion “safe, legal and rare”. Because what the rare does, it says to the people who are uncomfortable about this, “we understand. This is not a great thing that anybody goes through.” And so we understand your ambivalence on the issue.
JEFF GREENFIELD: When you look ahead to November and I hate predictions probably as much as you do, do you think at the end of the day – cliché alert – that abortion is going to be a significant factor in this election?
ELAINE KAMARCK: You know if you had asked me that a couple of months ago I would have said, absolutely, no way. On the other hand given what the Republican party has done, and given Mitt Romney’s own sometimes he’s for it, sometimes he’s against it, stances, I think it could end up playing into a Democratic victory just because there’s going to be a lot of suburban moms kind of like we saw in the piece that just preceded this who are going to say “You know maybe he’s okay, but I don’t know where he is…and that party, they’ve just gone off the deep end for me.”
JEFF GREENFIELD: Elaine Kamarck, thank you very much for being here.
ELAINE KAMARCK: Thank you, Jeff.
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: THIS WEEK ONLINE, TAKE PART IN OUR WEEKLY POLL. THE TOPIC: ABORTION RESTRICTIONS. LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK AND WHY. VISIT PBS DOT ORG SLASH NEED TO KNOW.
JEFF GREENFIELD: Finally…if you want a dramatic example of the gap between the most ardent supporters of the two parties and the broad middle of the country, you can’t find a sharper issue than the abortion question. To go by their platforms both republicans and democrats have staked out positions than can fairly be described as absolute. To go by the polls, the country is in a very different place.
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: AS RECENTLY AS 1976, THE REPUBLICANS OFFERED A PRO-CHOICE CANDIDATE–GERALD FORD–AND A PLATFORM THAT SIMPLY NOTED WIDELY DIVERGENT OPINIONS. BY 1980, ITS CANDIDATE–RONALD REAGAN–WAS SQUARELY AGAINST ABORTION, AND THE PLATFORM WAS TO. AND SINCE 1984, THE GOP PLATFORM HAS DECLARED, “THE UNBORN CHILD HAS A FUNDAMENTAL INDIVIDUAL RIGHT TO LIFE WHICH CANNOT BE INFRINGED.” TAKEN LITERALLY, THAT WOULD FORBID ALL ABORTIONS, EVEN TO SAVE THE LIFE OF THE MOTHER. THE PLATFORM ALSO BACKS A “HUMAN LIFE AMENDMENT” TO THE CONSTITUTION. AND THE DEMOCRATS? WELL, BACK IN 1996 THE PARTY’S NOMINEE; BILL CLINTON SET OUT HIS POSITION THIS WAY.
CLINTON: “..abortion should be safe, legal..and rare.”
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: BUT, IN THE DEMOCRATS’ CURRENT PLATFORM, “RARE” IS A MISSING NOTION. RATHER, THE PARTY SAYS “ THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY STRONGLY AND UNEQUIVOCALLY SUPPORTS ROE V. WADE AND A WOMAN’S RIGHT TO MAKE DECISIONS REGARDING HER PREGNANCY, INCLUDING A SAFE AND LEGAL ABORTION, REGARDLESS OF ABILITY TO PAY.”
IT MAKES NO REFERENCE TO ANY LIMITS ABOUT HOW LATE IN A PREGNANCY THIS RIGHT WOULD APPLY. OR ANY OTHER LIMITS. INDEED, IT SAYS: “ABORTION IS AN INTENSELY PERSONAL DECISION BETWEEN A WOMAN, HER FAMILY, HER DOCTOR, AND HER CLERGY; THERE IS NO PLACE FOR POLITICIANS OR GOVERNMENT TO GET IN THE WAY.”
JEFF GREENFIELD: Now, by contrast, look at what polls tell us about where Americans stand.
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: A GALLUP POLL LAST MAY FOUND THAT 50 PER CENT CALL THEMSELVES “PRO LIFE” WHILE 41 PER CALL THEMSELVES “PRO-CHOICE.” BUT THESE NUMBERS MEASURE PERSONAL FEELINGS, NOT WHAT THEY THINK ABOUT WHAT THE LAWS SHOULD SAY.
AND EVEN THOUGH MOST PEOPLE IDENTIFIED THEMSELVES AS PRO-LIFE, ONLY 20% BELIEVE ABORTIONS SHOULD BE COMPLETELY BANNED. AND ONLY 25% THOUGHT ABORTION SHOULD ALWAYS BE LEGAL. MORE THAN HALF THOUGHT IT SHOULD BE LEGAL BUT WITH RESTRICTIONS OF ONE KIND OR ANOTHER.
JEFF GREENFIELD: So in other words overwhelming majorities do not agree with the Democratic platform position– or the Republican platform position.
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: AND JUST TO ADD IN ONE FINAL NOTE—MITT ROMNEY, THE REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE—WOULD SUPPORT ABORTION IN THE CASE OF RAPE AND INCEST, WHICH MEANS HE DISAGREES WITH HIS OWN PARTY’S PLATFORM. AND WHEN LATE-TERM ABORTION WAS OUTLAWED BY CONGRESS BACK IN 2003, 17 DEMOCRATS— INCLUDING THE SENATE DEMOCRATIC LEADER—VOTED FOR THE BILL. NOTHING LIKE ABSOLUTE CLARITY ON AN ISSUE, IS THERE?
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: THAT’S IT FOR THIS EDITION OF NEED TO KNOW. FOR MORE, PLEASE VISIT PBS DOT ORG SLASH NEED TO KNOW – AND DON’T FORGET TO TAKE PART IN OUR WEEKLY POLL WHILE YOU’RE THERE.
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: AND FOR CONTINUING ELECTION COVERAGE FROM PBS PROGRAMS PLEASE VISIT PBS DOT ORG SLASH ELECTION 2012.
JEFF GREENFIELD: On next week’s program, the view from Main Street. John Larson reports from Pueblo, Colorado.
JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: A STEEL TOWN IN THE PROCESS OF REINVENTING ITSELF IS ON EDGE AS THE ELECTION APPROACHES…
You know, we all grumble about– paying taxes. Yet here’s a community that– has stepped up, time and time again over the last 25 years, and imposed a tax on itself because it understands the value of economic development.
JEFF GREENFIELD: The view from Main Street. On the next Need to Know. I’m Jeff Greenfield. Thanks for watching.