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White House Women's Forum Could Capitalize on Gender Gap

By Alexis Simendinger - April 6, 2012

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That a GOP nominee must improve his standing among women voters if he hopes to defeat Obama in November is not a media or campaign exaggeration. Romney, when asked this week, conceded there is a problem, but he then referenced his wife, Ann, and her assessment from the campaign trail that women want to talk about the economy.

In several recent polls, the gap favoring Obama against Romney has been as high as 20 points among women voters, although the president ran about even among men in February and March, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

“It’s not that there’s been a huge improvement for Obama,” said Anna Greenberg, senior vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, “but there’s been real erosion for Republicans.”

Just two years ago in the midterm elections, women voters sent Obama and Democrats a warning. They gave Republicans the best showing they’d experienced among that bloc since 1982, splitting their support evenly: 49 percent for Republicans and 48 percent for Democrats in House races. “It had been a long time since Democrats did that badly,” Rosenberg said in an interview. Having captured 56 percent of the women’s vote in 2008, a 48 percent showing in 2012 would spell defeat, she added.

But Romney’s fumbles have been Obama’s gains -- so far.

The president’s advantages over Romney are considerable among women younger than 50, according to the March 29 Pew report. He also outpaced the former governor among women 50 to 64, but Romney is slightly favored over Obama -- 49 to 48 percent -- among women 65 and older. Most pollsters suggest that race is a part of the president’s challenge among older women, which could be an important factor in a swing state like Florida.

The senior-women conundrum for the president also helps underscore the importance Democrats place on repeatedly criticizing Republicans, as Obama did again Monday in describing the House-passed GOP budget cuts proposed for Medicare and Medicaid.

Issues that are more important to women than men, according to Pew, include an active role for government, especially government support for the poor, children and the elderly; education; safety regulation for food production and packaging, workplace health and safety, and environmental protection.

Many of those issues are expected to come up Friday during the White House forum.

In addition, women are much more likely than men to support gay marriage, an issue on which the president and his team say he is still evolving. Women are less supportive than men of nuclear power and increased offshore oil and gas drilling -- two elements Obama champions with his “all of the above” energy policy.

Women are more cautious than men about possible military action in Iran, suggesting that Obama’s go-slow sanctions squeeze on Iran might resonate, except perhaps among some Jewish women fearful about an imminent attack on Israel by Tehran. The genders are in close agreement about their enthusiasm for extracting U.S. troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. The pace of withdrawal scheduled through 2014 will be discussed with allies into the summer, the White House has said.

As women voters -- in particular the all-important independent female voters -- acquire more information about Romney, they have been more apt to suggest the former governor appears to lack empathy and life experiences they imagine might meld with their lives, according to recent polling. Greenberg suggested the recent erosion of support for Romney among some women, albeit early in the campaign, is not just a by-product of Santorum’s conservative shift to social issues during the primaries but also a result of Romney’s rhetorically clunky “self-inflicted wounds,” plus disclosures about his wealth.

“It’s not just a Romney problem; it’s very much a Republican Party problem,” emphasized Republican pollster Linda DiVall, founder and CEO of American Viewpoint, referring to voting data obvious since 1980.

A gender gap -- the difference between the percentage of women and the percentage of men who choose a specific candidate -- has favored Democrats in presidential races for more than three decades. The gap measured seven points in the 2008 and 2004 elections, 10 points in 2000, and 11 in 1996. And it’s worth a reminder that more women are registered to vote in America, and they turn out to participate in elections in higher numbers than men.

Romney, DiVall suggested, would do well to return to the winning and simple GOP message that helped Republicans gain support from discontented voters in 2010 -- President Obama’s economic policy is not good for the direction of the country. “That’s the contrast Romney has to return to,” she told RCP. He is still in the phase of introducing himself, she insisted, and the head-to-head contrast with Obama doesn’t really kick in until the GOP convention in Tampa Aug. 27-30.

“We’re only in April,” DiVall said.

There will be nearly five months for Romney to lay out his economic policies against Obama’s governance in ways that contrast voters’ aspirations for better lives against their current worries, she added. To speak about those ideas to women voters, she continued, Romney could “personalize the economy more” with connections to children and grandchildren of the next generation. Some political observers have suggested Romney used that messaging to good effect in Iowa in January, and then seemed to leave it behind. 

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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