Women hold balance of power in presidential race

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have 10 million good reasons to talk about binders and birth control: There are 10 million more women than men in the American electorate.

Women also figure disproportionately in a group both campaigns are in full-fledged pursuit of — the ever-shrinking ranks of undecided voters.

Women at the low end of the economic scale are especially likely to be undecided, said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Tagged with the moniker “waitress moms,” they are simply too consumed with daily economic survival to focus much on politics, she said.

“There are still a group of voters out there who are up for grabs, and that is why these candidates are really targeting women voters and targeting women in these swing states,” she said.

So how does one target a woman, anyway? Are females creatures with political needs exclusive to themselves, or are they, well, just like everyone else?

Both, say pollsters who have researched that question.

Women, like men, list jobs and the economy as their foremost concerns. But they’re also attuned to a constellation of issues that affect them disproportionately — contraception, abortion, the social safety net, parity in the workplace.

“The Republicans want to deregulate everything but women’s health. They treat us like kids or pets,” Susan Thomas, 68, said at a recent Obama rally.

“I remember what it was like in the workplace, the kind of subterfuge you had to go through to get birth control,” said Thomas, a retired college professor who lives in Decatur.

But Amy Peil, a Romney supporter from Sandy Springs, said she weighs economic policies over social issues when casting her vote. “The hardest hit have really been the women and the single moms,” she said.

“It’s just upsetting to me, because they are just obviously misinformed and don’t know this whole Democratic ‘war on women’ has just been sort of used as a distraction,” said Peil, 54, the co-host of an Internet radio program.“All the talk about contraception … As if that’s, as a woman, our only health concern.”

Women have outvoted men in every presidential election since 1980, casting nearly 10 million more ballots than their male counterparts in 2008. Over the years, political analysts have spliced and diced them into singles and single moms, soccer moms, grandmas and now waitress moms.

Women have favored Democratic candidates in the past three presidential elections, but experts say that doesn’t mean Obama has a lock. Some polls show Romney gaining significant ground among women on the heels of this month’s debates.

The GOP nominee’s popularity spiked among women — as among men — after the first debate in early October, said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Romney is making great gains overall, and in particular, among women,” he said.

That, however, was before the latest incident involving a GOP Senate candidate and a remark about rape. (The candidate, Richard Mourdock of Indiana, said he believes that pregnancies resulting from rape are God’s will.)

“We’ll see if this controversy over the Indiana senate candidate or anything that happens down the stretch will move people one way or the other,” Doherty said.

For those attempting to handicap the race, the danger is that the furor over such isolated incidents can obscure the more fundamental, underlying forces that will drive the outcome.

“The first thing to note is that for both men and women, there’s a lot of common ground: they are concerned about the economy,” said Scott Rasmussen, a pollster and head of Rasmussen Reports. “That’s the biggest issue for men and women, young and old. Everybody.”

Gallup polls from both August and October found that both men and women listed jobs and the economy as the most important issues facing the country.

One layer deeper, however, differences emerged.

When male voters were asked what issues are most important to men, specifically, they again named the economy and jobs. However, when women were asked which issues are most important to females, they listed reproductive rights, jobs and health care.

“Overall, women’s priorities aren’t any different than men’s, but when you ask them specifically about issues that matter to women, they take a different approach on social issues,” Doherty said.

Of course, in any group that makes up more than half the electorate, there are many sub-groups with divergent attitudes and concerns.

Much of Romney’s female support comes from married, older women.

“It was no accident that they talked about mothers (at the RNC convention), because it was an attempt to build support with the base,” said Carroll, of Rutgers.

But Romney’s website and the Republicans’ platform are less obvious than Obama’s and the Democrats’ in their efforts to single out women as a special segment of the population.

One need look no further than Obama’s website to get a sense of just how much emphasis his campaign is putting on women. The website lists “women” as a singular issue alongside health care, education and taxes.

Further, the site has a special section called “Life of Julia,” depicting how a fictional woman’s world would be affected throughout her lifetime by either Obama’s or Romney’s policies.

In particular, it’s critical for Obama to reach younger, unmarried women, said John Zogby, an independent pollster with JZ Analytics.

“In the next couple weeks, be looking on the TV,” he said. “If you don’t see Obama standing with a giant sea of young women behind him, he’s not doing what he needs to do.”

Even in Georgia, universally considered a done deal for Romney, women are are evenly split between the candidates, according to a statewide poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the poll, conducted two weeks ago, 48 percent of women said they’d vote for Obama if the election were held then; 46 percent said they would vote for Romney.

There was a huge gap, though, in how much ardor each candidate evoked. More than two-thirds of the women who favored Obama described themselves as “very enthusiastic” about his candidacy. Just over one-third of women supporting Romney were equally fired up.

Nevertheless, Romney’s 9-point margin among men gave him a comfortable 8-point lead among all Georgia’s registered voters, according to the poll, conducted by Abt SRBI Inc.

At 18, Ga. Tech freshman Meredith Christianson is a member of a key Obama demographic. But she’s voting for Romney.

“This election is definitely more about getting our economy back on track than it is about social issues,” said Christianson, who hopes to become a physician. “I’m really focused on getting the economy better and to a place that when I graduate in four years there will be a job for me.”

At 40 and making a very comfortable income as a project manager Venita Howell, of Roswell, looks a lot like a Romney voter. And she said she finds herself aligned with the GOP candidate in many ways. She even expects that in a second Obama term, her taxes would rise.

But she’s put off by what she describes as Romney’s changeability. “He seems to say what people want him to say, which I guess I understand if you need money to run,” she said.

Howell also worries about the fate of those who are less fortunate. “The trickle-down theory doesn’t work for people at the bottom of the trickle. If that’s what we’re going back to, no thanks.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.