What women want is political key
No matter how artificial and canned the candidates can seem at a presidential debate, no matter how competent or ineffectual the moderator — the nominee’s true self will peak out at some point.
Thus did GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tip his hand when it comes to the all-important female vote — which both he and President Barack Obama have been scrambling after. He didn’t make a huge gaffe or get ensnared in a tough debate about choice. Moving around the stage, he seemed a 1950s throwback who had wandered in from a different decade — one where men were men, women wore shirtwaist dresses (Ann Romney’s uniform) and marriage was between a man and a woman.
Of course what drove this home was Romney’s anecdote about trying to find talented women for his staff when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007. He said he actually went to a number of women’s groups “and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Though he apparently flipped this story: The groups came to him unsolicited.
However it happened, it was the telling moment, the one that has continued to dog him.
What? He couldn’t just look around and find qualified women? He couldn’t look through the ranks of his colleagues at Bain Capital or down the corridors of state power and pick out any number of terrific women? No, quite clearly he didn’t know such women because he was still operating in a world of men — the place he is comfortable.
You wonder: Did he have a clue how silly it sounded? How out of touch? You have to figure, given all the irritable and amused dust kicked up, that he will study his performance for the final debate — and try to rectify it no doubt — before the deciding third round on Monday.
That’s because the women’s vote is key to victory for both men. The famous gender gap — which opened back with Ronald Reagan when there was a decisive, divisive split between the presidential preferences of men and women — has become the Democrats’ best friend. Women supported Obama over John McCain by 13 points. Thus the dogged scramble to appeal to women, specifically women in the swing states.
A slew of polls showed that Romney had narrowed that gap after the first debate — that he had surprised women, in particular, by appearing warmer and more approachable than he had previously. He was the beneficiary of a “surge among women in favorability,” in the words of longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Women who went into that debate with a decided antipathy toward the smooth, distant uber-capitalist/rich kid (people were not fooled by his convention anecdotes about his and Ann’s struggles as young marrieds, eating dinner on an ironing board) came away thinking maybe he did have some empathy for their plight after all and might be able to help them.
Because the fascinating split for women and in women is: abortion versus jobs.
If choice is at the top of your list — or health care and availability of contraception and keeping Planned Parenthood funded (no surprise that Obama mentioned that organization five times) — then you will be for the president.
But concern about the debt and deficit has risen sharply on the list of female concerns. It was fourth on a list of five issues among women in a March poll of battleground states. Now it ranks second — which plays to Romney’s strength.
I heard a woman on an airplane last week saying she was absolutely pro-choice but still leaning toward Romney because she thought he might be better about creating jobs. I had never heard a woman say something like that.
Choice was The Issue, the litmus test — to use a loaded expression — for so many women of my generation. That was where the buck stopped. If a politician was against Roe v. Wade or wanted to overturn it, well that was that. He or she wasn’t going to get your vote no matter what. That one issue spoke to many women in a way no other did. They saw it as the bedrock freedom on which every other freedom hinged.
So I was amazed to hear this young woman. What’s clear is that things are shifting around there in the hearts and minds of women. Many, as the president himself pointed out, are the breadwinners in the family now. Hanna Rosin, in her provocative new book, ‘The End of Men,” writes not just about the frisky, sexually entitled and well-compensated women at the top of the economic and educational ladder (the ones Mitt Romney couldn’t seem to find without help) But she also focuses on the women in the middle and at the lower ends of the economic scale, those now often forsaking marriage and raising kids solo.
Rosin talks about the “ambiguous independence” many women feel as the old roles have shifted and the traditionally male jobs in manufacturing and the like have disappeared, leaving women to make the money. And do much else as well.
Onto these shifting sands have walked our two presidential aspirants with their Harvard degrees and lovely wives and intact families — in a way anachronisms both. The question is who can speak better to the hopes and fears of women who find themselves in this new world, specifically the stressed-out single moms who are the typical swing voters.
Romney has tried to project the patrician demeanor of someone who can look after you by managing the economy the way he did Bain. I know how to run things; I can fix what’s broke. That’s his mantra.
When he tries to be personal — something he seems to assiduously avoid — with his off-the-cuff and probably innocuous-sounding anecdotes, like that about the binder or about giving a female employee more flex time so she could be home at five in time to make dinner for her kids, he just sounds patronizing and old school.
The president, meanwhile, is hitting women’s issues with every breath — from Planned Parenthood to equal pay for equal work. Though cool, he is clearly more comfortable being personal, talking about being raised by a single mom, his grandmother and the glass ceiling, and occasionally about his daughters.
So the fight is on — for and within women all over this country. Will the long-in-place gender gap remain or is this the election in which we will see a sharp shrinkage. That will say an extraordinary amount about what women really want.
Illustration: MATT MAHURIN