This Election Will Be All About Women

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A new poll shows how pivotal the female vote will be in the general election -- and calls into question Mitt Romney's strategy for reaching them.

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A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows President Obama's lead over Mitt Romney widening among women. The poll, a sampling of registered voters in 12 swing states, finds that while Romney has a slight lead among men, 48 percent to 47 percent, he lags by a whopping 18 points, 54 percent to 36 percent, in the women's vote. That means Obama's nine-point lead over Romney in the poll can be entirely attributed to the women's vote.

The gulf is even wider among younger women, according to USA Today: More than 60 percent of the women under 50 in the poll support Obama, while just 30 percent support Romney -- a drop of 14 points from a similar poll conducted in mid-February. According to cross-tabs provided to me by Gallup, Obama also leads among men under 50 (53-41) and women over 50 (48-42). (It's older men, not younger women, who are the true outlier in the poll: They're the only group with which Romney has a lead, and it's a big one, 56-38. Maybe what we ought to be asking isn't why young women are so turned off by Romney but why old men are so turned off by Obama.)

Women are generally more likely to vote Democratic than men; according to national exit polling, in 2008, Obama won women by 12 points (his overall margin of victory was 7 points). John Kerry won women by 3 points in 2004, Al Gore by 11 points in 2000. In 1996, Bill Clinton won women by 16 points while leading among male voters by just 3 points.

Democrats, who have been milking the GOP's supposed "War on Women" for all it's worth, point to the poll as evidence that Republicans including Romney have alienated women voters with their talk of hot-button social issues, particularly curbing access to contraception. The liberal group ThinkProgress rushed out a list of five Romney stances it blamed for the gap, including his opposition to abortion, his pledge to defund Planned Parenthood, and his tepid response when Rush Limbaugh called a pro-birth control activist a "slut."

Interestingly, though, Romney's primary rival Rick Santorum actually does slightly better against Obama among swing-state women than Romney does in the new poll. He still loses big among women, but by 15 points instead of 18. Nonetheless, Obama beats Santorum by a wider margin -- 11 points -- than he does Romney. That's because Obama, in a head-to-head with Santorum, wins men by 6 points.

This result complicates somewhat the conventional wisdom that women voters are being turned off by social conservative stances, since that's what Santorum is primarily known for. Romney has generally done better among women than men in the primary's most hard-fought contests -- in Ohio, for example, Romney lost the male vote to Santorum by a point while winning women by three points, according to exit polls. Again, the conclusion has generally been that even Republican women are turned off by Santorum's seemingly retrograde view of women's roles and sex.

But then why would Santorum do better among women in a general-election matchup? It could just be a quirk of differing data sets, but it's also worth considering that our preconceptions are wrong. Perhaps, for instance, there's a core of family values-oriented independent women who see Santorum as speaking for them, but don't feel the same way about Romney.

Or maybe Romney's economic message is leaving women cold: The swing-state poll found women's No. 1 issue to be health care, while men's was the national debt and deficit. The Romney campaign has recently been deploying Romney's charming wife Ann to do women's outreach; her pitch revolves around how concerned women are about the deficit. But according to this poll, that's not really the case -- the deficit was fourth among women's chief concerns. (For both men and women, birth control was last among the six issues polled.)

As the 2012 general election gets under way, analysts have posited that young, secular women are likely to be the most coveted swing group. The degree to which the Obama campaign can win them over may well be the single most pivotal factor in the campaign. But as Romney seeks to make inroads, he may need to find a new way of reaching women voters.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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