This winter, Democratic women got the diamond ring they were waiting for. The Democratic Party threw a wrench that the Republicans (or anyone else, for that matter) never expected in the 2012 campaign: birth control. President Obama called for legislation to mandate every employer provide birth control to its female employees. The conservatives (and Catholics) balked, Sandra Fluke was called a slut and Democrats everywhere believed the Obama campaign had found the issue that would help him win a second term.
But lately President Obama seems to be losing his mojo with the ladies. In 2008, President Obama won 56% of the female vote to John McCain’s 43%. The most recent 2012 numbers show that Mitt Romney's popularity is on the rise among women voters while the incumbent Obama’s is on the decline. To be fair, Obama trumps Romney in a poll of favorability among women, at 52% approval to Romney’s 41%, and it’s clear he’s working a little harder. Obama’s campaign page includes a special section for women voters; Romney’s does not. Still, Romney’s popularity is on the increase, the recent rating represents a 14-point gain in the female vote since April.
But why is the female vote so attractive to presidential candidates? According to Dianne Bystrom, the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, the reason the gender gap is so important isn’t the popularity points, but the fact that more women are registered to vote than men in most states, and a much higher female turnout rate at the polls. “It’s sheer numbers,” she says. In the 2008 election, 60.4% of the female population over the age of 18 showed up at the polls. Men? Just under 56%. In plainer terms, 10 million more women than men voted. Quite simply: more female voters=more female power, particularly in battleground states.
Swing states, or the undecided “battleground” states that don’t historically vote with a specific party, are traditionally where candidates spend the most time eating pancakes, shaking hands and kissing babies and old people, particularly towards the end of campaign season. At this point, notes Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, we begin to hear a lot of talk about “soccer moms.” Why’s that? As elections draw near, the few remaining undecided voters become priority. According to Carroll, “It’s traditionally the case that these voters are women.”
Presidential candidates, then, must be ready to snap them up—at town hall meetings and barbecue joints where they attempt to speak with female voters on the issues they weigh the most important. “The set of issues tend to be the same but the priorities men and women give them are different,” says Carroll, who says that men weigh the economic debt at a top priority where women tend to hold healthcare and education in high regard. “Women voters are incredibly important at the end of an election cycle,” she says, “They’re the voters who are up for grabs and candidates are prepared to win them over on the issues that matter most.”
And so, in battleground states where women out-vote men in the hundreds of thousands, the female voice becomes even more powerful than that of her sisters in solidly blue or red states. With that in mind, Obama and Romney would be smart to court Pennsylvanian women over New Yorkers, Floridians over Oklahomans. “Of course women are targeted,” says Bystrom. “When you look at the difference between the number of men and number of women, there are simply more women to woo.” For their ease (and yours, as it’s forever important for a women to known her own value—and that of her vote), we’ve crunched the Census data on the gender divide on voting in the most contentious states this fall.
According to our ranking, Virginian women could (and should) be the most sought-after voters this November. Virginia holds 13 electoral votes and is considered a definitive swing state for the Presidential election. In 2008 Barack Obama took 53% of the votes to John McCain’s 46%, surprising politicos in the long-standing Republican state. But what’s more, two million female voters turned out to the polls, nearly half a million more of them than their male peers. As of this week, voters in the state are evenly split between the candidates (both received 47% of a recent Rasmussen poll). A precious 3% remain undecided.
Obama also took North Carolina, Virginia’s southern neighbor and our second state to watch for female voters in 2012. President Obama reversed the trend of Republican dominance in the state in 2008, defeating John McCain by about 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast, making it the 2nd closest race of the election (behind Missouri). For reference on the importance of the female vote, women out-voted men in North Carolina by 358,000.
In fact, the only battlegrounds state where women don’t out-vote men is Nevada, where men rule by a slim margin of just 10,000 votes. To be sure, women’s votes count there as they do everywhere—and even more so because of the state’s ability to help either candidate snap up much-needed electoral votes—but when it comes to states where women hold the cards, it didn’t make the cut.
So where else does the female vote reign supreme? In Ohio, where women out-voted their brothers and husbands by 275,000 in the 2008 Presidential election, and in Pennsylvania where the gap is over 400,000 in our favor. Paired with the knowledge that the state boasts 20 electoral vote, a Pennsylvanian woman should cast her ballot with the full and powerful knowledge that she’s making a difference. The likely question for either Obama or Romney, then, isn't whether they will get more women than men to vote for them in one of these key battleground states, but how. Romney, as is common for a Republican candidate, knows he can’t reverse the gender gap—and so he only seeks to narrow it. As a result, he won’t be speaking to women as a special interest group, but hoping to bring them into the fold of his (largely male) supporter base.
Democrats, on the other hand, traditionally exploit the gender gap to their advantage. Obama is putting the full court press on women this campaign season—what began with the contraception brouhaha has escalated into rhetoric on the “war on women.” Bystrom says she’s not surprised by the President's in-your-face tactics to solicit the female vote. “He had to woo female voters in 2008 but had to be much more subtle so as not to put off Hillary Clinton supporters because he needed their vote.” This time around, she says, he’s done away with subtleties.
Readers: As a woman, what do you make of being wooed by politicians? I want to hear from you, particularly if you live in a battleground state: what is being done in your community to win the female vote? Leave me a message here, on Facebook or let's chat on Twitter.