To claim Virginia, Obama’s hopes rest on women

In a presidential campaign where women’s issues have taken a more prominent role than many expected, the crucial swing state of Virginia is becoming the Grand Canyon of gender gaps.

A new Washington Post survey indicates that President Obama holds a 19-percentage-point lead (58 to 39 percent) among female likely voters in the commonwealth yet is running six points behind Republican nominee Mitt Romney among men who are likely to vote (50 to 44 percent). That support from women is the reason the president now holds an eight-point advantage overall in Virginia.

There has long been a disparity between women and men in their voting patterns — a phenomenon first identified and named the “gender gap” during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

This year, however, ginning up female support has become an imperative for Obama in his reelection bid. Across the electoral map, the Obama campaign is banking on women to offset an expected loss to Romney among men.

In few places, if any, does that effort appear to be succeeding as well as it is in the Old Dominion. That is in part a reaction to heavy-handed Republican moves on reproductive issues, but it also reflects an apparent affinity that women feel with Obama on economic concerns.

Gender politics have flared elsewhere — in Missouri, for instance, over GOP Senate nominee Todd Akin’s comments about rape, which have jeopardized his party’s prospects for picking up that seat. Nationally, even the long-settled question of contraception has been back in the news, as the two parties have waged war over whether it should be covered under the national health-care law that is Obama’s signature accomplishment.

But the gender gap in Virginia is more than twice as big as the national one, according to recent polling. The current numbers mark an even starker contrast from the presidential election four years ago, when men and women in Virginia voted almost identically in favor of Obama.

And in the 2009 governor’s race, majorities of men and women supported Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), despite the Democrats’ efforts to make the race a referendum on gender issues that included the unearthing of McDonnell’s master’s thesis, which described feminists and working women as “detrimental” to the family.

Support from women is also fueling the rise of Democratic Senate candidate Timothy M. Kaine, who has moved into an eight-point lead over his fellow former governor, George Allen (R). The difference with men, however, is not as pronounced as it is in the presidential race: Kaine has a 15-point advantage over Allen with women, and he is tied with men.

A shift over three years

So why do men and women in Virginia see this year’s election so differently?

Democrats and their allies say that it is partly the result of what has happened in Virginia since 2009, including an effort by Republicans in February to require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound with a vaginal probe.

Virginia legislators ultimately backed off somewhat, passing a version of the bill that mandated a less intrusive procedure. But that was not until after the controversy had produced a mother lode of material for late-night comedians — and, some believe, cost McDonnell his shot at being Romney’s running mate.

That and other antiabortion measures generated a new intensity among Democratic voters, such as Deborah F. Fitzgerald, an employee at the Charles City County public works department.

“An awful lot of this campaign is coming down to the uterus, particularly for me as the owner of one,” she said.

Planned Parenthood’s political arm is investing $1.8 million in ads in Northern Virginia that highlight Romney’s opposition to the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The Obama campaign has been airing similar ads this month.

“What’s different this year is that women see all this and say, ‘Oh, my God, they are serious, and they might have the power to do this,’ ” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Planned Parenthood Votes.

In The Post’s Virginia poll, Obama leads Romney by 22 points on women’s issues — his single biggest advantage in the 10 issues tested. More than nine in 10 men and women alike say the economy will be “extremely” or “very important” in their votes, but nearly six in 10 women say social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, will also be a factor. Fewer than four in 10 men are focused on these issues.

Republicans, however, dismiss the idea that women will vote on those grounds.

Gerarda Culipher, 36, a lawyer who runs a small business, estimates that she has made 700 calls on the Republican ticket’s behalf. Monday night found her at it again, working the phones at a GOP campaign office in Springfield with about 15 other women — despite the fact that she was three days from the date she was due to give birth to her fourth child.

In all those calls, she said, “not a soul, not a soul has mentioned a social issue.”

“What I hear at the playground, what I hear at the grocery store, what I hear in my lawyers groups is no different. The cost of living is killing us,” said Culipher, who lives in Oakton.

Culipher added that she doesn’t believe the poll results that show women supporting Obama over Romney — in part, she said, because the women she knows are all too busy to sit through a long survey.

Still, the Post polling data suggest that even on the pocketbook issues, women in Virginia are solidly with Obama — again, in contrast with their male counterparts. Women registered voters trust Obama more than they do Romney to handle the economy, 52 to 39 percent. Men go in the almost opposite direction, approving of Romney’s ability by 51 percent to 40 percent.

On Sunday, 17 female volunteers gathered at a storefront Obama campaign office in Falls Church for an afternoon of going door to door to mobilize and persuade other women to vote for the president.

Kim Smith, the office’s field organizer, ticked off issues the volunteers should raise with undecided women. None involved reproductive issues.

At the top of her list was reminding them that the first piece of legislation Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act , making it easier for women to challenge their employers on unequal pay.

Next: “A lot of people hate the ‘Obamacare’ word. Embrace it. Don’t shy away from it,” Smith said, noting that the new health-care law requires insurance companies to pay for diagnostic tests such as mammograms, bans them from charging women more than men for the same procedure, covers children with preexisting conditions and allows parents to keep young adults on their insurance policies.

“Those,” Smith said, “are your main go-to points for women.”

Ben Pershing and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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