Mitt Romney is surging because women are abandoning the president. Why is this bloc so fluid? And can Obama get them back?
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.
"I just haven't been satisfied with Obama the last four years," Bonilla said. She voted for John McCain in 2008, but this year she hasn't made up her mind. "My husband's going for Romney, but I'm still not sure," she said.
After the first presidential debate, Bonilla warmed to Romney, but she heard some things in the second debate that sent her back the other way. She didn't like it when Romney talked about drilling for oil off the Virginia coast, for instance. In addition to her husband and two children, Bonilla's 79-year-old mother lives with her and relies on Medicare, and she worries about supporting her if the program is "voucherized."
Anyway, the debates haven't done much for her. "Them bickering, after 30 minutes, I lose interest," she laughed. "They're not answering the questions."
But Romney's statements about women in the second debate touched a nerve. "When he didn't answer about equal pay, that bothered me," she said. And in addition, "I think women should have the right to choose. It's not up to the government, especially in cases of rape and incest." Bonilla didn't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
Listening to herself, Bonilla paused. "I know it sounds like I'm veering towards Obama!" she said. "But we're not better off financially. He hasn't gotten the job done."
This was a common refrain among the women I interviewed, a perspective that had them feeling pulled in different directions. The economy had soured their view of Obama, and while they agreed with him on women's rights, they didn't like to see themselves as single-issue voters.
Romney's "binders full of women" line, an awkward phrasing that inspired reams of mockery on the Internet, wasn't changing any minds among the women I spoke to. Democratic partisans saw it as more evidence Romney was out of touch; Republican partisans saw it as of a piece with his business background. "Anyone who's ever been a professional, ever, knows that's how you get resumes: in a binder,"43-year-old Republican stay-at-home mother Michele Moss said, rolling her eyes. Only someone who'd never been in the business world -- like Obama -- would fail to understand that.
The "binders" line didn't register at all among the undecided women. Nor did anyone mention the Virginia legislature's controversial move to require women seeking abortions to get ultrasounds, including invasive ones in some cases. When it happened, Democrats were sure the bill, which passed the state house but was watered down after Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell pulled his support, was their permanent ticket to the women's vote. But now, outside of Obama rallies, it seems largely forgotten.
Neither does Obama's trumpeting of his work to ensure equal pay necessarily resonate. A couple of months ago, someone called Dee Ralls, a 49-year-old parole and probation worker for the state, at her house to ask about her vote. She said she wasn't planning to vote for Obama, and the next thing she knew, there was a canvasser at her door, giving a big speech about equal pay for women.
"I said, 'I never had that problem,'" said Ralls, a heavily made-up blonde in a white peasant blouse and peace-sign earrings. "If anything, the reason I was discriminated against was because I was white."
Before her second husband died of a heart attack, for which Ralls received a malpractice settlement, she got pregnant for the fourth time. With three young kids, the timing wasn't right. She got an abortion, but at the clinic, she was shocked and irritated by all the "slutty people" she saw, who didn't seem to be taking the procedure seriously.
Ralls doesn't think about politics much -- she doesn't think it affects her. "Oh, but you know, here's something," she said. Her 23-year-old son was just about to age out of her health insurance when Obama's health-care reform extended the time she could keep him covered, she recalled. "That was a good thing," she said. Plus, her boyfriend says Romney's an idiot, "and he's pretty smart." Ralls is pretty sure she'll vote for Obama.
At the high school where she teaches math, 42-year-old Christina Prishack is one of just two Republicans she knows about. But she's always been a Republican. Her parents were Republicans. As soon as she was old enough to vote, she started voting a straight Republican ticket. Now, she's undecided for the first time in her life.
"I was in the Young Republicans in college," Prishack said. Her 11-year-old son, looking bigger than his age in his purple-and-white padded uniform, was practicing football under the lights. "I used to be very right-wing on abortion, taxes, everything. As I've gotten older I've shifted toward the middle."
I asked Prishack where she stands on reproductive rights these days. "That's one of the reasons I became less conservative, honestly," she said. "I couldn't imagine someone telling me I don't have the right to make that decision. There are so many factors. You can't have a blanket policy."
Despite the way her politics have changed over the years, Prishack was still far from committing to Obama, and figured she'd have to do more research in the final weeks before the election.
In swing states across the country, from Virginia to Colorado, the outcome of the election likely hinges on the choice voters like her make.