The second presidential debate last week at Hofstra University in New York had been billed in advance as this cycle’s town-hall-meeting-style affair, in which how the candidates interacted with the audience—engaging, emoting, empathizing—would be crucial. Instead, the nearly 66 million viewers who tuned in were treated to the forensic equivalent of a cockfight. For the 97 minutes that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shared the stage, the two men basically ignored the audience and behaved like a pair of amphetamine-addled roosters, jabbing at each other with their beaks and slashing away with the razor blades attached to their claws. Never before has a presidential debate been so raw, so physical, and so visceral. In the words of the Daily Caller’s Mickey Kaus, apparently preferring the primate to the avian when it comes to animal metaphors, the debate was “pretty much pure Alpha Male Theater.”
By the next day, however, the tone and tenor of the campaign had decisively shifted away from displays of testosterone to appeals to estrogen. In Ohio, Obama, picking up on the Romney debate line that launched a thousand Tumblr posts (my favorite featured Beyoncé demanding, “Better put Three Rings on it”), declared, “We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women ready to learn and teach and thrive and start businesses.” Romney, meanwhile, was in Virginia, playing his own version of the gender card: “Why is it that there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office? This president has failed America’s women.”
The intense focus on the ladies at this juncture is neither surprising nor hard to fathom. Until the first debate, Obama’s lead over Romney was driven largely by a yawning gender gap, and the post-Denver evaporation of that lead has owed mainly to his rival’s gains with the fairer sex. Both campaigns know that an outsize share of the undecided voters in battleground states are women. And both have theories about how to woo them—theories at once clear, starkly divergent, and hugely revealing of the broader strategies they are employing in the weeks before November 6.
To the extent Obama is still a narrow favorite, the reason is that he is polling marginally better in the swing states than he is nationally—and the reason for that, in turn, is his strength with women. Obama has always done well with minority and college-educated white female voters. Where he has overperformed in 2012 is with blue-collar white women and in particular those in the states where the campaign is actually being waged. Whereas the national polls at the end of September found the president claiming 35–44 percent support among this group, “in the battleground states, especially in the Midwest, Obama’s performance [was] stronger,” wrote Ron Brownstein of National Journal at the time. “Among these women, the state-level polls show[ed] Obama drawing … 48 percent in Florida, 49 percent in Nevada, 50 percent in New Hampshire and Wisconsin … and 52 percent in Ohio and Iowa.”
What accounted for this divergence? Almost certainly it was the sheer weight of the negative advertising run against Romney during the spring and summer by the Obama campaign and the main Democratic super-pac, Priorities USA Action. Much of it was aimed directly at so-called waitress moms, blanketing the airwaves during the daytime on such programs as Judge Judy and Dr. Phil and painting Romney as a heartless, soulless, out-of-touch plutocrat. Indeed, one of the most-aired ads of September was a spot that featured the audio of Romney’s 47 percent comments and multiple images of working-class women.
But the first debate set Obama back with the waitress moms, which the Democratic pollster Geoff Garin sees as “disproportionately the moving part left in the electorate.” Beyond Obama’s massive meta-level #FAIL in Denver, he specifically fell short when it came to shoring up his position with these voters. “If you think about all of the should-have-dones that night,” says Garin, “at the top of the list was confronting Romney on these issues that speak to women and affect women.”
Thus did the Republican nominee begin his upward creep in the polls—and thus was appealing to blue-collar women of paramount importance to both him and Obama last week at Hofstra. The president’s efforts in this regard were plain to see: the repeated attacks on his opponent for pledging to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood; his proud invocation of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And Romney’s were no more subtle: his declaration that “every woman in America should have access to contraceptives”; his criticism of the president’s economic policies as having been especially deleterious for women; and, of course, his description of how he had pushed to include ample femalehood in his administration when he was governor of the Bay State, which led him down the path to BindersFullofWomenGate.