After Mitt Romney's clean sweep Tuesday night—where he declared victory in the Maryland, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. primaries—it's becoming increasingly clear that he's got this contest sewn up. Unfortunately for him, he'll enter the national race facing a longstanding and worsening Republican problem: the gender gap.
Sometimes it's hard for me to distinguish what's a big deal in my insulated bubble of media and policy wonks and what's an actual big deal. The mini-scandals about Etch-a-sketchs and Cadillacs that have gone on during this election campaign have largely gone unnoticed by the general public. Even though I'd been consumed with the GOP's focus on women's reproductive rights—the Komen kerfluffle, the repeated attacks on birth control, Rush Limbaugh's "slut" screed and the subsequent silence from Republicans, the transvaginal ultrasound controversy amid dozens of anti-choice bills—I was worried my awareness was amplified because I'm a feminist journalist, especially because there was some evidence that culture warrior Rick Santorum's number of female supporters were actually growing. But it turns out my fears were unwarranted.
The partisan "gender gap" has been around for decades; Democrats have won among women in every national election since 1980. But several new polls show that gap widening at an astonishing rate in the past few months alone. The Pew Research Center's recent numbers were dramatic: In the group's March poll, Obama led Romney by 31 points among women younger than 50, and had a significant advantage among women 50 to 64, too. A USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 crucial battleground states released Monday found just half of female voters younger than 50 supported Obama in mid-February—but less than two months later, more than six in 10 support Obama while Romney's support has dropped by 14 points, to 30 percent. In the same poll, Romney leads among all men by a single point, but the president leads among women by 18—a significantly bigger gap than the 12-point gender gap in the 2008 election.
The gender divide could tip the scales in favor of President Obama, especially since there are more women than men overall, more women registered to vote, and better turnout among women voters. These early signs of an Obama advantage appears to be a case of history repeating itself: Even though Bill Clinton was reelected by a comfortable margin in 1996, he actually lost the male vote by one point. It was women, whose votes he won by 16 points, who decided Clinton's fate. And that was without an obvious chain of events positioning the GOP as hostile to women's health and autonomy. The Obama campaign is clearly latching onto this advantage—by embracing the "war on women" rhetoric, by sending out daily emails detailing the GOP's latest lady-gaffe, by going out of its way to extol the virtues of Planned Parenthood in complimentary videos and fierce press releases.
Still, the fact that Rick Santorum's numbers among both independent and Democrat women were better than Romney's in late February—at the height of the birth control controversy—continue to haunt me. If women care so much about contraception and breast cancer and abortion rights, why are they reacting better to an unapologetic moralizer than to the candidate least focused on social issues? Aside from attacking Planned Parenthood and dodging birth control questions in an attempt to mollify socially conservative voters, Romney has tried to steer the debate away from hot-button issues. His gaffes have more to do with how rich he is than how much he wants to control women's bodies.
So why do women hate him so much? His low female poll numbers, at least for now, seem to be the product of a perfect storm. He's the most prominent figure aligned with the party waging the "war on women," so part of the widening gender gap is death by association. But women may also be picking up on something more sinister: While Santorum genuinely cares about the culture wars, Romney seems to be using conservative attacks on women's health simply as a bargaining chip to win right-wing voters. When he answered a question about the budget last month by offhandedly suggesting we "get rid of" Planned Parenthood, he seemed to be callously throwing a bone to anti-choice zealots rather than expressing an authentic position. His supposed focus on the economy paired with his haphazard assaults on reproductive rights manage to make him look anti-women, apathetic, and opportunistic all at the same time. At least we know where Santorum stands. Romney, on the other hand, stands wherever the GOP tells him to.