In courting women, Romney camp bets on the economy
That strategy, Republicans say, will boost Romney enough among women to give him an overall edge, not only because of his advantage among white men, but also because many undecided women voters are in a lower income bracket and thus more likely to be financially underwater.
"In this economic environment, jobs, inflation, the price of a gallon of milk and a gallon of gas outweigh issues like contraception," said Republican pollster Chris Wilson. "I think the best thing that Obama could do right now is... to come up with an economic plan that is targeted toward women."
Can Democrats take back the economic issue?
Part of the Republican calculus on this issue is a basic assumption that Romney has the edge on economic issues, and that the president's ability to appeal to voters on this subject is undermined by what the campaign casts as an insufficient economic recovery.
Mr. Obama, however, is attempting to cut into that narrative. In addition to reiterating their longstanding argument that women's health issues are economic issues, the campaign is attempting to cast doubt on Romney's record supporting equal rights in the workforce. The president and his surrogates have recently seized on Romney's muddled history of support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and immediately pounced on comments he made during the second presidential debate about using "binders full of women" as a way to find qualified women to hire. The Obama campaign is also re-upping its attacks on Romney's records at Bain Capital, which many say proved effective over the summer.
Republican and Democratic strategists alike predicted the "binders" meme could do significant damage to Romney's prospects if Democrats find a way to make it stick, and his campaign swiftly announced a "We Know Mitt Tour," featuring women who worked with Romney during his tenure as governor, in an effort to preempt future fallout.
"If you're ever in a situation where you're being lampooned on the nightly shows, or things are hitting comedy and pop culture, it's going to move through the public consciousness much faster," said Democratic strategist Celinda Lake. "I think that comment just struck women as really odd. We're not binders, we're real people, and we've been trying to knock on the glass ceiling for a long time. I think that really stuck."
If women are turned off by the comment, Wilson says, it could start "the domino effect that can move the needle enough to win or lose the election."
"A one- or two-point impact could be the difference between winning and losing," he added.
The turnout factor
As much as the battle for undecided voters may come down to which and how many women prioritize social issues over the economy, turnout among women will be equally critical.
"The more women who vote, the more likely they are to vote Democratic," said Marsh. "As we're closing in on the two-week mark, this is all about turnout."
While women make up a large proportion of undecided voters, a huge chunk of females -- younger, unmarried, minority, and suburban-dwelling females -- are reliably Democratic. Lake, however, points to a huge enthusiasm gap among this group between 2008 and 2010: 11 million unmarried women who voted in 2008 did not vote in 2010, she said, and 6.6 million younger women who voted in 2008 did not vote in 2010. Getting those women to the polls in 2012 is a major Democratic priority.
"You don't have to persuade these women who to vote for," said Lake. "You do have to persuade them to vote. They've been very hard-hit in this economy. The answer is to offer something very specific to them that they believe will make a different in their families' lives."
At the end of the day, the Obama campaign's expansive ground game and sophisticated turnout efforts could be the make-or-break factor, says Marsh.
"A good ground game is worth three to five points on Election Day," she argued. "I don't think Romney has the ability to turn out voters anywhere near the way the Obama campaign can. Now he has to really motivate them to do so."
Ultimately, however, Democrats concede that even turnout will get the campaign only so far.
"Turnout can make a difference but it can't make up for losing independent women," said Lake. "So we have to win over both."
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