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Judy’s Notebook: Women Wanted

A woman’s shoes at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Now that both campaigns are focusing more openly on women voters, my question is: what took them so long? It was in 1920 – long after the founding of our country – that women were first permitted to vote in the U.S. But just 60 years later, in 1980, their turnout exceeded that of men. Now, we take it for granted that more women will vote than men, and we scratch our heads trying to understand why they often vote differently. The “gender gap” has become a fact of modern American politics, as we try to figure out why it waxes and wanes from one election to the next.

It first appeared in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and over time, as analysis has grown more sophisticated, it’s increasingly calculated by marital status and age, income level and education. To boil down the differences: Women – especially unmarried women – tend to be more for government playing a supportive role in society, and more against military engagement abroad. Until a few days ago, President Obama had an unquestioned lead among women, especially those not married. The challenge experts were posing for Gov. Romney was that he couldn’t let his share of the female vote drop TOO far below that of the president’s, because there’d be no way to make up the difference with men.

But since the first presidential debate on October 3, tectonic plates have shifted. A poll by the respected Pew Research Center showed Romney had gone from being 18 points behind among women last month, to even with President Obama at the time the new poll was conducted. Other surveys also show movement among women in Romney’s direction, but not as large. In any case, it’s enough of a signal that the Romney campaign is moving quickly to take advantage of the second hearing their candidate is being given by women – pointing out he does not oppose abortion in cases of rape or incest or if the life of the mother is at stake (separating him from the personal view of his running mate, Paul Ryan), and noting that he favors making contraceptives available under most circumstances – notwithstanding his previous support for the right of employers who wanted to deny providing such coverage.

At this week’s debate, the two candidates weren’t asked about abortion, as their vice presidential running mates were a week earlier, but there’s a clear difference: Romney has said he favors overturning the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal. Meanwhile, they did argue over whose policies as president would be better for women. President Obama spoke of his support for equal pay and workplace treatment for women, as well as for a woman’s reproductive rights. Romney became the subject of much post-debate discussion over his remark about being given “binders full of women” as he looked to fill out state jobs after being elected governor of Massachusetts. But his main pitch was the economy, pledging to create jobs as president that would benefit women, who he said have been hit especially hard by the recession and its aftermath.

As American women think about whether to vote, and whom to vote for, that economic argument is a powerful one. Do they believe Gov. Romney can create jobs that President Obama cannot; or do they believe the president has had the right prescription, but has been stymied by Republicans in Congress? And do they believe Romney would carry out policies that could lead to more restrictions on reproductive rights; or do they think that matters less than the need for different economic leadership? Both campaigns desperately want these questions to come out in their favor. This election could very well come down to how women answer them.

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