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.
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.