OPINION19 October 2012

Binders full of women – and voting booths too


The Romney camp missed a chance to permanently win more female voters with their post-debate clarifications this week, says Edelman Berland’s Emily Hunt.

Essentially, I thought that the Republican Party should stand firmly behind something like the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Republicans standing up for equal pay for women had a warm, fuzzy, almost patronising feel to it that might push women’s groups to think beyond choice and cause unions to pause for a moment before sending out field forces for the Democrats.

So the clarifications put out by Mitt Romney’s campaign following the second presidential debate on Tuesday missed a real trick. In saying that Romney was against the Lilly Ledbetter Act, but wouldn’t go so far as to repeal it, the campaign made no one happy.

Most importantly, the Republicans failed to grasp the chance to capitalise on the “gender gap” and to turn a polling blip into a potential trend.

Though the national polls are at a tie the gender gap remains important. This is because:

  • Women represent a short-cut snapshot of a group that “should be” for Obama, or rather, that we expect to be for Obama
  • Women were overwhelmingly in Obama’s favour before and he can’t afford to lose their support now
  • It is hard to win a presidential election without the gender gap in your favour

The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan wrote a blog on the topic after the first presidential debate. Citing post-debate polling by Pew that showed not just a narrowing of the gender gap but its entire evaporation overnight, Sullivan wrote: “Has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate ever lost 18 points among women voters in one night? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That’s terrifying.”

That’s the key point here. It is a terrifying evaporation for any campaign. President Obama won the female vote by 13 points in 2008 – and as women are 51% of the population, losing that advantage has obvious implications for election day. Women here are serving almost as a barometric reading on the overall atmosphere of the election.

In addition, while George W. Bush was able to win without the overwhelming support of women, every other President since Reagan has had the “women’s vote.”

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

With the instant polls after this week’s debate showing a win – but not an overwhelming one – for Obama, it will be interesting to see how the women’s vote shakes out. I suspect that by election day we’ll see a return to a +2 Obama lead with the gender gap in his favour.

I am still not eating my hat.

Stat of the week

  • 10 million more women then men said they voted in 2008 – 70.4 million women compared with 60.7 million men. Source: Wall Street Journal

Thanks, as always, to Jacqueline Wallace for her help.

Emily Hunt is director of insights at Edelman Berland, Edelman’s insights and analytics subsidiary. She is a dual US/UK citizen, and has a strong interest in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Emily has an MA in Political Campaign Management from New York University and started her career as a political operative in the US before moving into polling. You can follow her on Twitter at @emilyinpublic or find out more about her here.