Why Romney lost women

The biggest reason Mitt Romney lost women, and thus the White House? All voters want to feel they can trust their president, and that’s even more true of women voters. Yet a surprising number of the Romney-supporting women I talked to on Election Day cast a ballot in the hope that he had not been telling them the whole truth, and did not mean every single thing he’d said.


Romney supporter Margaret Berkowitz outside her McLean, Va. polling place. (Connor Turque for the Washington Post)

“He had to swing more to the right to win” the nomination, explained George Mason student Margaret Berkowitz, a first-time voter in McLean, Virginia, “and we understand that. They’re not going to overturn Roe,” she said, adding that “you just ignore those ads” that claim otherwise.

Gail Ulven, a 27-year-old pro-choice therapist who lives in Fairfax, voted for Romney on the economy, but didn’t believe for a second that Roe was on the table, either. Neither did Kathleen Prokay, a retired adjunct college professor in Charlotte, N.C., who was interviewed by my She the People colleague Mary Curtis. “Not that it doesn’t bother me,” Prokay said of her candidate’s stated abortion views, “but sometimes you just have to make choices and compromises.” 

These were spot interviews, of course, and the opposite of scientific. But they did, I think, tell us something important about why exit polling showed Obama won women 54 to 45 nationally, not so far off his 56 to 43 showing in 2008. Obama won women in every swing state, besting Romney with female voters 53 to 46 in Florida, 55 to 44 in Ohio, 58 to 42 in New Hampshire, 51 to 49 in North Carolina, 54 to 45 in Virginia, 57 to 42 in Wisconsin, and 59 to 40 in Iowa. Gender-based gaffes from Missouri Republican Todd Akin and Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock without any question lost those senatorial seats for their party, and kept the Senate, where a record 18 women will hold seats, for the Democratic Party.

Both presidential candidates were branded as inveterate fibbers by their adversaries, of course: Cindy Beley, a 56-year-old advertising saleswoman in Conifer, Colorado, interviewed by She the People’s Mary Winter, thinks “Obama used scare tactics to try and make women think Romney would take away their reproductive rights. A president doesn’t have the power to do that,” added Beley, whose civics teacher could not be reached for comment.

Yet only Romney’s supporters inferred that they trusted him to govern because they didn’t believe everything he’d been selling them as a candidate. Just as he asked conservatives to believe that the guy Bill Clinton called “Moderate Mitt,” was the poser, so, too, did he ask moderates to rest assured that he wasn’t as “severely conservative” as he was pretending to be long after securing the nomination.

Would he keep the parts of “ObamaCare” that will make sure no one can be denied health insurance over a preexisting condition? He said that he wouldn’t, would, wouldn’t, would, wouldn’t; were we even supposed to keep track? And then there’s this: Romney’s closing argument to the make-or-break state of Ohio was flatly, demonstrably false: The untrue tale that Jeep executives were “thinking about” moving Ohio jobs to China not only failed to confuse Ohioans, but backfired.

Team Obama consistently targeted women voters with appeals on abortion rights, while Team Romney seemed to see us as either small business owners or aspiring small business owners. The Republican nominee’s decision to appeal to women on the economy was no doubt correct — and also the only way he could go, given that he couldn’t very well tout his murky views on equal pay. It was his plan itself that didn’t close the deal, because he failed to convince enough women that his agenda would boost any but the highest earners.

Maybe Obama was always going to win women, who favor Democrats in general and can be relied upon to actually show up at the polls. He did so even though Obama supporters also expressed some unhappiness with the way he pitched to them: “I found the advertising just appalling — all of it,” said Maris Newbold, a consultant in McLean. 

Many women said they were glad they’d picked a president early, and so didn’t have to focus on every last brickbat heaved across the ideological divide. “I’m not one of those undecided voters,” said Faith Dreher, a Romney-voting grandmother of eight. And most women I talked to on Election Day cited the economy as their leading concern — no matter which guy they were backing.

If this election had really been all about women, we’d have surely talked a lot more about child and elder care, and education. But though the pandering wasn’t what it might have been from either side, you can’t win by hoping your own folks know you were winking when you made some of those promises.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Mary C. Curtis · November 6, 2012