Down in a Swing-State Poll, Can Mitt Romney Win Women Voters Back?

He’s been pummeled by toxic cultural issues. Yet Obama isn’t a lock with female voters. By Patricia Murphy.

Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

The good news for Mitt Romney is that he is not without all hope when it comes to winning back the independent women who have fled in droves from supporting him to favoring President Barack Obama for the November election. But the bad news is that it’s going to take a lot more than Romney calling for women to join Augusta National, as he did Thursday, to get back the crucial voting bloc’s good graces.

Until three months ago, Romney led Obama among independent women by 5 percentage points in a head-to-head contest, according to the USA Today/Gallup swing-state poll. But 90 days and a Republican sprint to the right later, the same poll shows Romney losing to Obama by 18 points among all women, and by 14 points among independent women, making for a massive 19-point swing that will be difficult—but not impossible—for Romney to reverse before November.

Celinda Lake, a top Democratic pollster, says Romney still has an opportunity among independent women, but his party has made his job infinitely more difficult for him with a focus on contraception and abortion issues in Congress and in statehouses across the country.

“Independent women are very swing, so they are anything but locked up,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think they are paying attention earlier than they normally do because these things are so outrageous in their minds. It isn’t just the positions the Republicans are taking—it’s the priorities. These women thought, ‘Things are really tough for my family, this country is in as deep a trouble as I’ve seen in my lifetime, and you’re worried about my birth control?’ That’s the really big factor here.”

Lake predicted that independent women will remain persuadable by both campaigns right up to the end of the campaign cycle, but said that Romney will have to hit the reset button very soon to reverse the trend.

Democrats have no intention of making Romney’s sales pitch to women any easier. They have pounced on women’s issues and doubled down on their appeals to independents in particular since the swing-state poll revealed the gaping gender gap that Romney is facing. In addition to their already-launched Women for Obama and DNC Women’s Institute, Democrats are holding events and rallies—at the White House and across the country—to tell women that Democrats care about the same issues they do.

When I spoke with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, on Thursday afternoon, she spoke on a BlackBerry from Philadelphia after a press conference in the city’s Love Park, where she was highlighting the “GOP ‘No Love for Women’ agenda.”

When I asked her what else Democrats are planning to appeal to women, she said the GOP had already done a lot of the work for her. “Actually the Republicans and Mitt Romney have done a good job of bringing this on themselves. We wouldn’t have as much to talk about if they weren’t engaged in taking positions that are so offensive to women and are so out of touch.”

But she added that she doesn’t think that independent women are a lock for the Democrats either.

“We’re not taking anything for granted, particularly not independent women,” she told The Daily Beast. “Our appeal to women is essentially, ‘Look, the Republicans are obsessed with cultural issues, are obsessed with making decisions for us on what kind of health care we can get, on adopting a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction. Barack Obama has made issues important to women his top priority.’”

But those same cultural issues are important for many conservative women, and as much as Romney will need to win over moderates, he also needs to energize women who oppose abortion rights to show up at the polls even after they voted for Rick Santorum in the primaries.

Conservative women say they’ll be there for Romney—or whatever Republican wins the nomination—to defeat President Obama. But they will be voting because of social issues, not in spite of them.

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“There is not a war on women,” said Mallory Quigley, communications director for the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that opposes abortion rights and has endorsed Santorum. “Women that we see across the country are pro-life. They want conscience protections for health-care workers and religious institutions. There is a war on them. The voices of the pro-life women are being pushed to the side by the abortion lobby and by the president, who are saying, ‘You’re not the kind of woman we’re concerned about.’”

Lake predicted that the race for independent women’s votes will come down to the economy in the end and suggested that Democrats talk about kitchen-table issues, like food prices, cuts to summer-jobs programs and after-school programs, help for small businesses, and health care, all topics that women focus on and worry about on a daily basis.

But she said the door is still open for Romney to make inroads. Although Romney does not need to win the women’s vote in November, he must at least hold his losses to the single digits in percentage terms.

“The Romney campaign has to convince these women to take a second look. And when they take that second look, they have to see something different from what they’ve been seeing in their right-wing legislators in Congress or Rush Limbaugh,” she said.

“This is a tightrope that he’s walking, and it’s not going to be easy. And he’s not going to be able to do it just by saying women should be able to golf at Augusta.”