Both sides out to woo women voters
This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Sept 25, 2012.
NEW YORK - In the play for American women, a critical voting bloc in the 2012 race, President Barack Obama shows all signs of besting his rival.
Mr Mitt Romney has stepped up his act, especially during the convention where he was confirmed as the Republican candidate for the Nov6 presidential election. But polls show he has a way to go before he closes the "gender gap" with women.
Mr Obama won the White House in 2008 capturing 56per cent of the female vote, but has lost some ground since then.
Currently, 53per cent of likely women voters say they will support him, giving him a 12 percentage point advantage over Mr Romney, a CBS/New York Times poll last week found. Likewise, Gallup's most recent poll data, released late last month, shows female voters prefer Mr Obama over Mr Romney by eight points.
Mindful that only a narrow gap separates the presidential candidates, the Republicans are eyeing women as swing voters.
Their pomp-filled party convention last month was designed in part to catch their attention. First Lady hopeful Ann Romney, whose image as a supportive wife and mother has been popular, played the sentimental, familial card in an obvious appeal to those in similar roles.
The Democrats hit harder at their convention the following week. Speaker after speaker challenged the Republicans on key issues such as birth control, abortion, education and equal pay.
"Put simply, women in America cannot trust Mitt Romney," said Ms Nancy Keenan, who heads a non-profit reproductive rights organisation.
Not all would agree with Ms Keenan but the ambivalence towards Mr Romney was apparent in prospective women voters interviewed by The Straits Times.
Law school student Noelle Vinson of Connecticut felt a disconnect between the Republican convention's family-centric discourse and her own world view as a single 25-year-old. "Their attempt to win women over at the convention struck me as disingenuous. We all know they desperately need support from us."
Single women such as Ms Vinson have tended to tilt towards Mr Obama. Some 66per cent of them voted for him in 2008.
One of America's fastest-growing demographic groups, single women make up a quarter of the voting-age population. There are 1.8million more of them now than just two years ago and a Quinnipiac University poll in July showed that Mr Obama had an almost 2-1 advantage with them compared with Mr Romney.
Married women with children - who form 15 per cent of the electorate - seem less enthralled by Mr Obama. Although a majority of them voted for him in 2008, they swung to Republicans in the mid-term elections.
Ms Andrea Frantz, married for 25 years with a 21-year-old daughter, is proud of her roles as a wife and mother, but says she is not defined by them. She found the Republican convention's approach to be offensive.
"Almost every other woman who trotted out on that stage was held up as a model mother and wife first. Anything else - pioneer, professional, philanthropist - was so far down the list of accolades that it was lost in the cacophony of 'high fives' for mums," said Ms Frantz, 48, an Iowan university professor. "I was stunned by how a 1950s mentality could be so openly celebrated by an entire party so incredibly dependent for its future upon a new generation of voters."
As at every election, female voters are split over the Republican Party's ideological opposition to abortion. A recent controversy involving the party's Senate candidate for Missouri Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" brought the issue to the fore again, something Mr Romney would have wanted to avoid.
He and the party distanced themselves from Mr Akin's comments, but many voters like Ms Frantz see the incident as a clear indication of "a desire by the Republican Party to control women and put them back 60 years in social and economic status".
By contrast, Mr Obama can boast of walking the talk on women's issues. The first law he passed after becoming President was to lower barriers to equal pay for women and men.
For Mr Romney, there is succour in the more conservative women. Political allegiance cannot be underestimated and some 90 per cent of Republican women say they will stand by their party's man.Mr Romney can also hope for some payoff from the state of the economy, which makes his promises of more jobs and efficient tax cuts appealing.
"Both Romney and (vice-presidential candidate) Paul Ryan are clearly trying to reach out to young people who have had difficulty finding jobs and may be disappointed with Obama's policies," said research assistant Miranda Neubauer, 25.
"Young women may see a decision between support for abortion rights and health-care benefits on the one hand, and what the Romney campaign sees as the economic promise on the other."
So far, however, the rights issues seem to trump economic woes and the female voters remain a challenge for Mr Romney.