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Obama Battling To Maintain Women's Vote, Seen As His Key To Victory

Onlookers listen as President Obama speaks Friday in Fairfax, Va., about the choice facing women in the election.
Carolyn Kaster
Onlookers listen as President Obama speaks Friday in Fairfax, Va., about the choice facing women in the election.

After President Obama's self-described somnolent first debate performance, his female supporters lit up social media and tagged the campaign with complaints about his failure to talk about their issues, from pay equity to health and reproductive rights.

He's been playing catch-up ever since, focusing on shoring up his party's two-decade-long domination with female voters who are key to Obama's hold on the White House.

After focusing squarely on women in the second debate this week with GOP challenger Mitt Romney, Obama has followed up with stump speeches that jabbed his opponent for his now-infamous "binders full of women" comment, and characterizing him as a throwback to the 1950s.

And at a rally Friday in Fairfax, Va., with Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, Obama unveiled a new attack line, accusing Romney of being afflicted with "Romnesia" about his past positions — including his previous support for legal abortion, and confusion over his position on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

It all makes for lively copy and loads of laughs at Romney's expense on late night comedy shows — from Jimmy Kimmel's "Swimmin' in Women" Romney parody ad, to Conan O'Brien's joke that the Republican is wooing women by promising "more Ryan Gosling movies."

But just weeks after polls conducted in the wake of Romney's secretly recorded "47 percent" comments suggested that Obama had an opportunity to improve on his dominating 2008 performance with female voters — exit polls showed him capturing 56 percent of the vote — he is now in the position of battling Romney to keep a high enough share to win.

A Pew Research Center survey taken last month, before the first presidential debate, found that likely female voters nationally preferred Obama by a nearly 20-point margin, driven, in part, by their more favorable view of the government's role in the social safety net.

Pew's latest poll had women evenly divided between Obama and Romney.

The Romney campaign? Its argument off-air has been that women are more than the sum of their reproductive parts, and its public political message to women has been about jobs and the economy, and how female workers and their families have been buffeted by the recession.

That resonates with voters like Jillian Batchelor, a Las Vegas Realtor and married mother of three. She voted for Obama in 2008, but won't again. Moved by economic issues, she says she's wary about Obamacare and its associated costs, and, outside the housing market pickup, says she doesn't see other conditions improving.

Batchelor says she disagrees with both parties on certain issues, but gives Romney the edge, saying, "It just couldn't hurt to get someone new in there."

While the Romney campaign hones in on women like Batchelor — disaffected 2008 Obama voters who are focused on economic issues — Democrats, and Obama, are going all in on reproductive rights.

An analysis released Friday by Kantar Media's CMAG political advertising analysts reported a proliferation in ads for Democrats that feature "mentions of abortion, contraception and funding for Planned Parenthood."

The ads, according to CMAG's Harley Ellenberger, are being run on the presidential, Senate, House and state-race level.

"Their growing reliance on this traditional social issue may be for turnout purposes," according to a CMAG analysis, "but also suggests their economic-themed ads aimed at women are having a more muddled impact."

CMAG reports that a month ago, ads mentioning the issues of abortion, contraception and Planned Parenthood were airing in 14 races around the country. This past week, it found such ads being used in 50 races.

The issues are crucial to many women who support Obama, but others, like Dallany Santos, 33, who works at a Las Vegas hotel, say they are more moved by what the president has to say about economic fairness, health care, unions and the middle class.

Santos says it was Romney's "47 percent" comments that rankled her more than any position he's had on reproductive issues.

Romney running mate Paul Ryan perhaps did his ticket few favors when, at a Thursday fundraiser in Florida, he tweaked the Democrats for accusing Republicans of waging a war on women.

"Now it's a war on women, tomorrow it's going to be a war on left-handed Irishmen or something like that," Ryan said, according to ABC News.

Not quite on the level of Romney's "47 percent," but in this supercharged battle for the favor of female voters, you can bet that Ryan's comments will soon join the "binders" video clip in the Obama campaign portfolio.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.