Let's start by saying that Ann Romney is fabulous. She's warm in a crowd and even better one-on-one. She's gorgeous and has raised five sons and struggles with multiple sclerosis. Ask a Republican voter who has seen her in action, and they will probably tell you one thing— Ann Romney is real.
So what’s the problem with Mitt Romney, Ann's husband, who is also accomplished and attractive, but is getting clobbered by President Obama in the USA TOday/ Gallup poll of swing state voters, which shows Romney beating Obama among male voters by one point, but losing women's votes by 18 points and thus a head-to-head matchup by 12.
You don’t need a Harvard MBA like Mitt Romney’s to know he will lose in November if he doesn’t make huge gains among women between now and then.
But when Romney was asked Monday about the gender gap in that poll, Romney told the inquisitive voter that that he just wished Ann was with him to answer that question.
"She says that she's out there going across the country and talking with women and what they're talking about is the debt that we're leaving the next generation and the failure of this economy to put people back to work," Romney explained of Ann’s travels. "She says she talks to women who are concerned about the jobs their kids are going to get and they wonder whether their future is going to be prosperous and bright as has been our lives."
That would be a great answer...if Ann Romney were running for president.
But Mitt Romney is running for president and he's talking about the majority of the American electorate like a strange, exotic species to be fully understood only by someone who knows their strange, native ways.
His answer played exactly into the caricature that has emerged of him-- incapable of relating to ordinary Americans (in this case women) and so disconnected from reality that he needs a scout to go out into the wilds of normal America and come back with a full report for him to digest on his own.
He could supplement Mrs. Romney’s field reports to him about female voters with some of the data found deep within the swing state poll, which showed that women’s top priorities going into November are health care, gas prices and unemployment. The deficit comes right after that, but what comes in dead last for women’s own priorities going into the election? Government policies toward contraception.
On that score, Romney seems to be paying for the sins of his party. Although he has not raised the issue on his own, the Republican Party itself seems to have made women’s access to contraception and abortion a top priority over the last several months and alarmed independent and moderate women in the process. Although women in the poll didn’t call the issue a priority for themselves, a majority said they were following the debate on the issue very closely or somewhat closely.
Romney’s general silence on the issue may be his best course during a Republican primary, but it is likely why 63 percent of people in the swing state poll said they didn’t know enough about his position to know if they agreed with him on it or not. His silence on the matter has extended to the entire debate. When he had a chance to speak out about Rush Limbaugh for calling Sandra Fluke a prostitute and a slut, Romney only said he would not have used those words. He told a reporter he would not support an amendment allowing employers the right to deny contraception coverage for women, but later said he would support the amendment.
That kind of reticence may keep a candidate out of trouble, but it also feeds into voters’ sense that they don’t know who Mitt Romney really is, that they don’t know how he feels in his gut about issues that affect their lives. It’s a flaw that has hurt him in the Republican fight, but could sink him in November. How can voters believe in a candidate they don’t even think they know?
If there's any good news for Romney that’s not in the swing state poll, it is that women voters are frequently late deciders in elections. With more information or different circumstances, they will often change their minds and make a different choice. Romney could begin his uphill climb with them by speaking out and speaking up. Instead of staying silent on issues that women are watching or having Ann Romney speak for him on issues women care about, he can go directly to them and tell them how he thinks their lives and their family’s lives would change if he were elected president. They may now always agree with him, but at least they can feel they know who he is, which is a start.
In January just before the Iowa caucuses, Romney was asked how women's lives would change if he were elected president and he gave an answer that I don’t know why he doesn’t go back to again and again.
"I think the biggest change is that women could look at their children and say, ‘The future is going to be better than the past,’" he told me then. "The country is going to be safe and secure; the economy is going to get better. Our schools will get better. You'll have a president who can set an example of tough decision making, and honesty, and integrity. And that president is going to do everything in his power to make America strong and the economy country prosperous, so that when your kids go to school, when they come out of school they're going to have a job. I believe the best thing I can say to a young man or a young woman that's raising a family is that if I'm president, I'll make the future brighter."
His answer had women in the mostly Republican audience nodding in agreement and the woman next to me almost in tears. And Ann Romney wasn’t even in the building.