The Democrats' huge lead among female voters is crumbling. In the swing state of Florida, it's not 'women's issues' that will decide who they back – it's jobs and the economy
Angela Shaw does not believe it, but she is in the frontline of a war. The 42-year-old Florida lawyer is in a crucial swing state and thus represents what is emerging as a decisive factor in America's 2012 election – the female voters set to determine the race for the White House.
As the bitter contest enters its final week, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are neck-and-neck and their campaigners are now doing everything they can to persuade voters that their party would best serve women's interests.
Television ads appeal directly to them; at campaign stops both Obama and Romney speak about them; and surrogates from Bill Clinton to Cindy McCain are wheeled out to tout for their support. Yet Obama has seen a strong lead among women almost disappear, making it feasible that they might vote on 6 November to put a Republican back in the Oval Office.
That is certainly what Shaw wants to see. "I think Obama has been an abysmal failure. He's done nothing for people like me," she said at a campaign stop in the central Florida town of Winter Park, where Romney's spouse, Ann, was holding a rally. Shaw said she had been largely out of work for the last four years, as had her husband, an estate agent. That, she said, was more than enough to make her want Obama to lose. "If Romney wins, I think there will be an economic uptick. It would be not be overnight, but the economy will be finally moving forward," she said.
That sort of sentiment is a nightmare to the Obama team. For months the Democrats have enjoyed a huge lead among women. It helped them weather much of Romney's rise after Obama's disastrous performance in the first presidential debate.
Now there are signs that this usually solid bulwark of support is crumbling. A poll last week from AP-GfK had Obama and Romney level among women at 47 points each. Only a month ago the same survey had Obama ahead by 16 points. The average of the overall national polls has Romney edging into a two-point lead. "Obama must do very well with women voters or not get a second term," said Professor Robert Watson, an expert in American studies at Lynn University in Florida.
Some experts believe the Democrats have made a strategic mistake. Over the summer the Obama campaign leaped on a series of gaffes by Republican politicians and conservative commentators, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh, on abortion, rape and reproductive rights.
Democrats touted a "Republican war on women" as one of the main planks of their campaign and seemed destined to tighten their hold on the female vote. But now it seems that a simple fact has been overlooked: in a struggling economy, women voters will put concern over jobs first. One study showed that, of the 2.6m jobs created since the recession ended, 80% have gone to men. "The Democrats played up social issues and thought they were going to coast to victory," said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University. "Now Democrats have to spin the social issues back to the economy."
Yet that territory is one the Republicans have been owning for months. Romney and his running mate, the firebrand Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, have hammered home their argument that Obama has failed to stimulate the economy or significantly reduce the suffering of those hit by joblessness. The AP poll, for example, showed 51% thought Romney would do a better job of managing the economy, compared with 44% for Obama.
That was the message Ann Romney was pumping out in Winter Park. Though the town, near Orlando, is one of the most upmarket in the state, with its leafy streets lined with expensive bistros, the image Romney painted was of an America on the brink of collapse.
"Like you, we have friends and neighbours that are suffering in this economy," she told the predominantly female crowd. "We're going to get it right this time, and we're going to make sure in November that we make Mitt Romney the next president of the United States."
Of course, the Obama campaign is far from dead. His team still expects to win, both with women voters and overall. Speaking to journalists last week, Obama's top political adviser, David Axelrod, was full of confident bluster, even offering a $10,000 bet to reporters that Romney could not explain how he plans to balance the ballooning deficit. "We feel strongly that we have the winning hand," he said. "Governor Romney will take us back to the foreign policy of the 1980s, the social policy of the 1950s and the economic policy of the 1920s."
That sort of language works with some women, warning of a reversal of social rights, such as abortion, that have been hard won. "Those issues are very important to me," said Mary Faso, 61, an academic at Broward College in Davie, Florida, where Michelle Obama was speaking. "It matters a lot to me and to a lot of the young people here. Romney on these matters is scary."
Faso was in a crowd of 2,000 who had packed into a sports hall to listen to the first lady. The audience full of women listened intently as she warned of the dire consequences of a Romney win and listed her husband's achievements. "When it comes to understanding the lives of women, when it comes to standing up for our rights and opportunities, we know my husband will always have our backs."
There has been a clear distinction between the camps. During the Democrats' convention in North Carolina – a swing state that many experts think is likely to fall to Romney – the party touted its passing of the Lilly Ledbetter law, which helps get equal pay for women. Obama and his supporters also sell his healthcare reforms as a way of helping women.
But neither that, nor the Republicans' repeated gaffes over rape and abortion, have halted the Romney rise in the last three weeks. In a swath of swing states, from Colorado, to New Hampshire, the polls have narrowed dramatically. Most of them are evenly split with barely a glimmer of daylight between the candidates. "It is very close. That is why the fight over the female vote has now become so important," said Professor Bruce Gronbeck, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
Most people expect ground zero of the election to be Ohio. No Republican candidate has won the White House without achieving victory in that midwestern state that combines a stretch of "rust belt" along its northern coast, rural farmland around the capital Columbus and a heavily Republican southern border with Kentucky. If Obama can stop Romney in Ohio, so the Democrat argument goes, then the Romney advance will be blocked and Obama will win re-election. The latest polls there vary from calling the race a tie to having Obama up by five points.
For the moment, that is grounds for Axelrod to keep expressing his confidence. "This race has settled into exactly where we thought we would be. It is the race we prepared for," he said. "We will know who is bluffing and who isn't [on election day] and I'm looking forward to it."
Such bravado is increasingly rare on both sides as attitudes across America harden and the still undecided voters become harder to find. One such is Daniel Snow, a 28-year-old estate agent who moved from Romney's home state of Massachusetts to Florida a year ago. He voted for Obama in 2008 but now is unsure whom he will back. He was not a fan of Romney's period in charge of Massachusetts but nor does he feel Obama has fulfilled his potential.
"I voted for Obama four years ago. I don't regret my decision, but I did not see the change that I thought I would," he said, explaining he had come to see Michelle Obama speak in Davie to "get some more information" that would help him make a choice. Snow was a rare male figure at the event; as the election hits the closing stages, it is women who are centre stage.
Commentators and statisticians have tried to come up with a term for them this year. They have been dubbed "waitress moms" or "Walmart moms" who are not college-educated and earn relatively low wages. Each side has devoted much attention to getting its women supporters to the polls. "All this hard work and progress: it's all on the line, it's all at stake this November," said Michelle Obama in Davie. Meanwhile, in Winter Park, Ann Romney was busy thanking the hundreds of women who turned out to express their support. Standing under a Women for Mitt banner, she boasted of her 18 grandchildren and told the overwhelmingly female crowd: "We need you to get out there."
Yet, for all the attention now focused on them, some female voters say the equation is actually simple. They do not like being singled out as a demographic, when they represent the majority of the electorate. Nor do they appreciate such things as abortion being pitched as "women's issues" that will solely decide their allegiance.
"Obama says that Romney has a war on women. I don't agree with that," said Shaw. "By saying that, he says that all women are concerned about is birth control and abortion. It demeans us. It says we don't have a brain," she said. Shaw says she has other, more pressing concerns when it comes to an election that is now just over a week away.
They have nothing to do with her sex, instead reflecting the deep and abiding economic woes that still mark the American electorate. "We haven't lost our home, but so many people I have worked with have lost everything," she said.
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