Democrats cannot win the presidency without rolling up a sizable margin among female voters. And President Barack Obama's re-election is in danger because his advantage with women is shrinking.
That's why both candidates are directing so many appeals to women in the final days of the campaign. A new Mitt Romney ad features a young woman who says the Republican is not really against contraception and actually supports abortion in cases of rape, incest and saving a mother's life. An Obama commercial focuses on bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and ends with a message aimed squarely at moms: "It's time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding here."
The polls are muddled. Politico has Obama up by six points with women, and the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll pegs his margin at eight. The ABC News/Washington Post poll says Obama leads by 14 points among women, but since the president trails so badly with men, that survey calls the race a tie.
The difference is critical. When Bill Clinton won in 1996, he enjoyed a 16-point advantage with females. Obama's lead four years ago was 13 points. Al Gore lost in 2000 when his margin dipped to 11 points, and John Kerry got clobbered four years later when he managed only a three-point edge. To win this year, Obama must post a double-digit lead with women and probably has to duplicate his victory margin from 2008.
The Republican theory all year has been that women will vote primarily on economic considerations and that a dispiriting combination of persistent unemployment and declining family incomes would pry enough females away from the president to elect Romney. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida summed up this strategy in deriding the president's record: "What's he going to do the next four years so women can find jobs? That's the No. 1 issue in America. That's the No. 2 issue in America."
Even Democrats admit that Rubio has a point. Pollster Celinda Lake, an expert on the women's vote, says the debates caused many women to "take a second look" at Romney, and "that's the danger for Obama." As she told USA Today, "Women went into the debate actively disliking Romney, and they came out thinking he might understand their lives and might be able to get something done for them."
Anna Greenberg, another Democratic pollster, says many women are no longer frightened by Romney and don't see him as "Satan." "I think he reassured a lot of women on the economy," she told the National Journal.
Still, Democrats have some inherent advantages, particularly with unmarried women, who made up 21 percent of the electorate in 2008. They tend to be more economically vulnerable than their married sisters and more receptive to the Democratic argument that government has a vital role to play on issues such as alleviating hunger and ensuring medical care.
Female attitudes are also shaped by their personal and professional experiences. Women are still the primary caretakers in most families -- for their children, their parents or both. And women dominate many professions where government either employs workers directly or subsidizes their salaries: nurses and librarians, teachers and social workers.
But the attachment of women to the Democratic Party is not just a question of crass self-interest. Blacks and Latinos have voted heavily Democratic in recent years, in part because the Republican Party made them feel unwelcome. GOP positions on civil rights and immigration have sent an unmistakable signal to racial minorities: We don't want you.
Democrats hope a similar scenario plays out with women. That's why they are hammering away on issues like contraception, women's health and the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which promoted equal pay for women in the workplace. And that's why they will play up two Romney statements in the final weeks: about the "47 percent" who see themselves as victims, and the "binders full of women" who staffed his administration in Massachusetts. The message: Republicans are insensitive to your needs. If you're not a white guy, you're not welcome in their party.
Moreover, Obama will mention his female relatives at every chance: his single mom who battled insurance companies, his grandmother who crashed into a glass ceiling, and his daughters, who should have unlimited opportunities. All those stories reinforce the same argument: When it comes to women, Republicans don't get it.
They're like the boyfriend who says he loves you but would rather go out drinking with his buddies. You can't trust him, say the Democrats. And you're better off without him.