Obama’s 15-point lead among women of a few weeks ago seemed to evaporate overnight after the first debate. There’s no way he will win those voters back that quickly—if at all. The reason? Obama overplayed the villain card.
In 2008, women voted for the soaring, optimistic “hope and change” mantra by 13 percent, but turned around and abandoned Obama in 2010, with a majority voting for Republicans for the first time since 1982. Why? They were disillusioned with the abrupt change in Obama’s cooperative tone. The lofty, inspirational rhetoric of “I want to listen to you especially when we disagree,” quickly transformed into “I won, you lost, get over it.”
But it wasn’t just the tone. It was also Obama’s inability to get the economy moving in the right direction. Women wanted action instead of empty platitudes. They wanted jobs instead of poverty.
Why then was there ever a huge lead for Obama among women when neither the tone nor the economy was improving? Because the strategy to “demonize” was working.
Obama, knowing he has no record to run on, dispatched a character assassination strategy against Romney from the early days of the campaign, painting him as anti-middle class, anti-immigrant, anti-elderly and--in particular--as anti-women, in part by grossly distorting Romney’s position on the HHS mandate controversy to suit his purpose. We were supposed to fall for the fallacious line that Romney was opposed to contraception for women. And that Mitt Romney was going to take us back to the Stone Age. A lot of women did fall for it. At least, for a time.
But Obama began to overplay his hand. He was proffering the strong implication that “women’s issues” are limited to those impacting reproduction. He and his surrogates used the DNC as a platform to pander overtly to women over Planned Parenthood and free, government-mandated contraceptive insurance coverage. By stark contrast, references to the economy were few and far between.
A few weeks later, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, said women “aren’t concerned about what’s happened over the last four years.” Then, his team posted to his campaign website a cartoon encouraging women to “vote like your lady parts depend on it.”
But there were some kinks in Obama’s woman strategy. For one thing, the Obama campaign never banked on the number one concern for women in this election being the economy. Romney, on the other hand, has been saying that since day one.
Obama also never thought Romney would go on offense to fight for women voters. All it took was one debate, with Mitt Romney sincerely defining himself as he looked into the eyes of the American people. He didn’t pander or condescend; he talked about what he believed, what philosophy motivates him, and how he will change things, particularly the economy. Almost overnight, Obama’s lead among women evaporated.
It was really during the second debate that Obama demonstrated how tone deaf he is to what was behind the seismic shift. He continued to paint Romney as the enemy of women who are driven almost exclusively by concern over contraceptives and Planned Parenthood, repeating the oft-told deceit that Romney would try to take away women’s health care decisions.
Contrastingly, Romney pointed out how poorly women have fared under this president: "There are 3.5 million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office," he said, putting the percentage at a 17 year high.
Challenging forthrightly Obama’s claims to the contrary, Romney continued, "I’d just note that I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not. Every women in America should have access to contraceptives... the president's statement of my policy is wrong."
Some women will no doubt continue to fall for the president’s shallow tactic of trying to scare them into voting for him. As one woman in a post-debate focus group said, “We can’t have a slick guy coming in who thinks women shouldn’t work outside the home.” Irrational fear mongering does work, among some, as least for a time.
For the most part however, most of us are examining the facts and the very different messages of the two contenders. Some may still be undecided, but we know this for sure: we don’t like being patronized or being taken for granted.
Kate Obenshain is the author of "Divider-In-Chief: The Fraud of Hope and Change."