It's the women, stupid! Barack Obama cannot win re-election without piling up a sizable majority among female voters. Sorry, fellas, but the ladies will pick the next president.
In 2008, 8 million more women voted than men, and women accounted for 53 percent of the electorate. Obama barely edged John McCain among male voters but trounced him by 13 points among females. Recent polls reflect a similar trend this year.
In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Obama trailed Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, by 6 points among men but beat him by 18 points among women. Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the survey, summarized: "Up until six weeks ago, Democrats suffered from an intensity gap, but this has closed as women -- particularly suburban women -- have turned against the GOP."
Team Obama is keenly aware of this shift, and the president now makes a direct appeal to women in almost every public appearance. At his latest press conference, he said women vote on a "whole range" of issues and added: "I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we're going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy."
The president is only the point man for a much larger campaign. Recent online ads for his re-election effort feature his wife, Michelle, and his two daughters. Mailings went out this week to a million women emphasizing the benefits they'll receive from the president's health-care bill, including low-cost mammograms and extended coverage for grown children in their 20s. On International Women's Day, the State Department publicized an initiative that's given grants to female entrepreneurs in 41 countries.
Of course, women, like men, are deeply influenced by the economy. Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, was right in saying, "Do you know what women care about? Women care about jobs." They also care about family budgets and the recent spike in gas prices that some polls show is depressing Obama's favorable rating with both genders, particularly in low-income households.
Since 1980, however, a structural gender gap has favored Democrats, and it's worth dissecting why. Start with the role many women play in their own families. They tend to be the nurturers, the caretakers, worrying about their children and their parents, and that makes them more supportive of social welfare programs, from food stamps and Medicare to the new health-care measure.
"Women 30 to 55 are always the most important target in health care," says Bill McInturff, a Republican who helps conduct the Wall Street Journal/NBC survey. They "are more engaged and active in the health-care system, more than any other age and gender. It's not surprising they'd be a target of the Obama administration and campaign on this issue."
This caretaker role is not just personal. It's often professional as well. Look at the jobs dominated by women -- teachers, nurses, social workers. And many of them work for government agencies or get paid by government programs. No wonder working women gave Obama a 21-point edge over McCain, while non-workers split almost evenly.
The other key variable is economic vulnerability. Obama won married women with children -- a more secure group -- by only 4 points; his margin was 18 points among all other women.
Recent flare-ups over social issues such as contraception and abortion have to be understood in this context. By framing these controversies as a "war against women," Democrats are trying to exploit an advantage that's been there for many years. And some Republicans are afraid they're succeeding.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska says she "let down" her constituents by supporting an amendment that would have allowed employers to withhold insurance coverage of contraception on religious grounds. "The wind had shifted," she told the Anchorage Daily News, "and Republicans didn't have enough sense to get off of it."
Not only do many women disagree with the hard-line Republican view on these issues, but also they feel they're an unwanted distraction at a time of economic stress. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told The Washington Post: "Particularly among blue-collar women, what we hear is, 'How can you be arguing over this when Rome is still burning for me and my family?'"
In the latest Pew survey, Obama outpolls Romney by 31 points among women under age 50. That margin will kill the Republicans unless they listen to Romney's wife and start talking about jobs and gas prices. The Romneys might also consider trading in a few of their five sons for those delightful daughters of Jon Huntsman. Just for the campaign, of course.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org