The Revenge of the Soccer Moms

Mitt Romney is surging because women are abandoning the president. Why is this bloc so fluid? And can Obama get them back?

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CHANTILLY, Virginia -- Remember the War on Women?

A few months ago, it seemed like the battle for women's votes was one Democrats had decisively won. While (male) Republican politicians talked about transvaginal ultrasounds, legitimate rape and the like, Democrats laughed all the way to the bank. President Obama's steady double-digit leads with women in poll after poll were a major reason he stayed ahead of Mitt Romney for months on end.

Then suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, Obama's edge with women began to melt away. More than any other group, women have accounted for Romney's surge in the polls, which has now given him a slim lead in the national popular vote and in some calculations of the electoral college. Women, it appeared, were not as firmly ensconced in Obama's camp as they had seemed. Indeed, they were abandoning the president en masse.

The evidence that Obama finds himself bleeding women's votes can be seen in how aggressively his campaign has sought to steer the conversation back to women's issues. Campaigning a few miles from here on Friday, Obama stood at a podium flanked by "Women's Health Security" banners; he was introduced by Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, and spoke against a backdrop of risers filled exclusively with women, holding turquoise "FORWARD." signs.

Meanwhile, the evidence that Romney is desperate to hold on to these voters can be seen in how quickly and defensively he has moved to respond. In a new Romney ad this week, a woman googles the claims Obama has made about Romney's abortion stance, only to find out they're not true. Romney's stated position is that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest and when the woman's life is at stake; he has said he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Already, the Obama campaign -- which has been airing abortion-themed commercials in swing states since June -- is out with another ad responding to Romney's response on the issue.

The recent fluidity of the women's vote, and the renewed struggle it has sparked, raises a question: Why, at this late hour of the campaign, when the vast majority of voters have made up their minds, are so many women still apparently open to changing their minds? Why was their onetime loyalty to Obama so weak? Will the president's forceful new emphasis on women's issues, particularly reproductive issues, bring them back -- or are they gone for good?

A Settled Issue

To find out, I headed to this suburban community near Dulles Airport, a former plantation town an hour outside Washington, D.C., whose Civil War markers are now sprinkled among big-box store developments and, this time of year, pick-your-own-pumpkin patches.

The population growth that turned Virginia from a reliably red state to one of this year's most contested battlegrounds has been concentrated in places like Chantilly, which sits on the border between Loudoun and Fairfax counties -- the No. 1 and No. 2 wealthiest counties in America respectively, with median household incomes well over $100,000.

The class conflict that plays so well in rural Ohio doesn't get much traction here. "This is going to sound totally selfish, but I think people should not be penalized for being monetarily successful," said Eileen B., a blonde 51-year-old with reading glasses perched on her head and a sweater draped over her shoulders. "We are in the top tax bracket, and we pick up the slack for the rest of the people."

Her friend Zebib A., a 46-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, nodded approvingly. The two were sitting on a fleece blanket emblazoned with the logo of the private Christian school their sons attend, watching the boys practice soccer in blue-and-yellow uniforms on a field at Poplar Tree Park. "People don't realize how very generous and charitable we are," Eileen continued, referring to those in her income bracket. "If I write one more check for a mission trip, I think I'm going to scream!"

I'd spoken to several of their fellow Christian-school moms and found them staunchly pro-life and staunchly Republican. But Eileen and Zebib both said they hadn't decided who to vote for. Zebib didn't think Romney's plans were specific enough. Eileen found Romney's manner in the debates shamefully disrespectful to the office of the presidency. Eileen was strongly antiwar; Zebib was intrigued by the ideas of Rep. Ron Paul.

Unlike their more conservative cohorts, these women agreed that abortion is not any of the federal government's business. But they also didn't believe abortion rights were on the line in the coming election. "It has never changed," Zebib said. "We've had pro-life presidents many times, and it didn't change. It's a bumper sticker. They try to divert our attention."

Eileen touched her friend's arm. "Most women I know, whether they're for Obama or Romney, they feel the same thing," she said. "It's a distraction. That whole Gloria Steinem thing is old."

Given the makeup of the Supreme Court and the likelihood that liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be the next to retire, it's possible, even probable, that a Romney presidency would lead to a new court majority hostile to Roe. But with abortion legal for nearly 40 years, these women can't imagine it being any other way.

Not Single-Issue Voters

In the bleachers next to a different field in the same park, I met Angela Bonilla, a 36-year-old medical biller with long dark hair and an easy smile. She sat checking her iphone while her 8-year-old ran soccer drills under a gently setting sun. As the field lights came on, they seemed to spotlight the bright reds, oranges and yellows of the tall trees encircling the field.

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

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