In the debate’s aftermath, Romney’s advisers pronounced themselves well pleased with how the matchup had played out. “This will hurt Obama, particularly with women,” a senior strategist e-mailed me the next morning. “He didn’t speak to the issues that most affect them: gas prices and jobs. His Lilly Ledbetter thing is such a think-tank answer. Also, there is just the fact that when women see Romney, they like him more than the portrait [of him] painted by Obama—and that hurts Obama, too.”
Obama’s people, not surprisingly, saw things differently. They believe that on the equal-pay issue, on contraception, and on abortion, they are playing a winning hand, and that what the Romney people are missing is that all these issues contain within them significant economic dimensions—a point that Obama hammered home explicitly in the debate. “There are millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care,” he said. “They rely on it for mammograms, for cervical-cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.”
It’s too soon to tell what effect Obama’s performance at Hofstra had with the waitress moms. But there are some clues. The day after the debate, Garin, who handles the polling for Priorities USA, conducted a focus group in Ohio exclusively composed of white non-college-educated women. “They didn’t talk at all about the binders-of-women thing,” Garin says. “But they didn’t like Romney in the debate, didn’t like his demeanor. They thought he was douchey.”
Doucheyness is never good, to be sure, but it may not be a voting issue. But on substance as well, there were signs hat Obama had made inroads. “Cutting Planned Parenthood is the thing that these women most know about Romney,” Garin goes on, “and it just bothers them. They say, ‘Who is he?’ or ‘out of touch.’ It’s also a signifier that the guy really is too conservative, because one of the things they’re trying to figure out about him is, is he a Massachusetts moderate or a ‘severely conservative’ Republican, as he put it. And Planned Parenthood is a signifier that he is either genuinely too conservative or has just thrown in the towel to the right wing of his party.”
One indication that Obama may in fact have fared better at Hofstra with the women who were watching—and that the Romney people know it—was evident on the campaign trail in the days that followed: The Democratic ticket was clearly on offense, the GOP one patently playing defense. With Obama singing the praises of his daughters (“I don’t want them paid less than a man for doing the same job”) and Joe Biden lunging lustily for the jugular (“What I can’t understand is how [Romney] has gotten in this sort of 1950s time warp in terms of women”), Team Romney released a TV ad rebutting some of the president’s charges in the debate. “Turns out, Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all,” a woman in the spot intones. “In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life.”
This defensiveness aside, however, the Romney campaign remains convinced that blue-collar white women are no different from every other segment of the electorate when it comes to one critical point: They care most about which candidate can bring about a degree of prosperity that has been painfully lacking for the past four years. In this belief, Team Romney, even as it has wobbled on so much else, has never really wavered: that a combination of indicting Obama’s economic stewardship and presenting Romney as a plausible alternative would be enough to win election.
The Obamans all along have operated on a different theory of the case: that the election would be a choice and not a pure referendum; that by exploiting the president’s advantages on a series of discrete issues with a number of well-defined constituencies, they could patch together 270 electoral votes; that, in other words, demography could obviate the political damage from a piss-poor economy. The big surprise here is that one of those constituencies has turned out to be the waitress moms. Both sides have a credible argument that their approach will win the day—the question is, who is right? And while I honestly have no idea, I do know this much: Upon the answer will likely turn the outcome of the election.