Two things happened yesterday that don’t seem unrelated. First, there was the release of a new poll in Ohio that showed Mitt Romney pulling closer to President Obama but still trailing by 4 points – thanks to a massive 36-point gender gap. Then came Romney’s statement to an editorial board that “there’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”
This is an extension of the strategy Romney employed at last week’s debate, simply playing dumb when confronted with the aspects of conservative ideology that are difficult to market outside the Republican Party base. In this case, there is a clear urgency for Romney in creating distance between himself and the right’s recent fixation on reproductive issues: A recent Bloomberg poll of swing voters in Ohio and Virginia found Romney leading among married mothers by a few points in each state – with the potential to open much bigger leads if he can work around the concerns they have about his views on women’s issues.
Romney, the Bloomberg poll showed, enjoys a clear advantage among these women on the economy, but has been hindered by, among other things, his vow to defund Planned Parenthood, his opposition to Obama’s decision to mandate insurance coverage of birth control, and his antiabortion position. The new Ohio numbers, from a CNN poll released yesterday, speak to Romney’s challenge. Among men in the Buckeye State, he’s now clobbering Obama, 56 to 42 percent. But with women, Obama is winning by a 60-38 percent margin. That translates into a 51-47 percent overall lead for the president, but if Romney can erode Obama’s advantage with women even a little, he can make up that ground.
Romney has played this game before, in the only general election before now that he ever won. It was exactly 10 years ago that he was running for governor of Massachusetts and found himself trailing in the race’s final weeks. The Romney campaign’s main strategy was to scare suburban swing voters with the specter of rampant Democratic cronyism in the state capitol – warning voters that a “gang of three” Democrats would run the state if Romney’s Democratic opponent, Shannon O’Brien, were elected.
But part of appealing to these swing voters also involved assuaging any concerns they had about Romney being to their right on cultural issues, particularly abortion. On this front, O’Brien spotted a clear opening. The year before, when he’d been back in Utah overseeing the Olympics, Romney had been thinking that his political future would be in the Beehive State, and not Massachusetts, where a Republican, Jane Swift, was serving as acting governor and where both Democratic senators were entrenched. So Romney, who had run as a passionate abortion rights supporter in his 1994 campaign against Ted Kennedy, began repositioning himself to fit in with Utah’s far-right Republican electorate, penning a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune in July 2001 in which he instructed the paper not to identify him as pro-choice.
It wasn’t a complete policy shift. Romney left himself enough wiggle room in case a 2002 opportunity back in Massachusetts opened up – which it did a few months later, as Swift’s governorship collapsed and Republicans begged Romney to come home and save them. So it was that Romney in ’02 resumed presenting himself as an abortion rights advocate, although this time in more muted terms, promising that he would uphold the state’s laws and do nothing to restrict abortion access, but shying away from the pro-choice label. Presumably, this was meant to seem consistent with the ’01 letter he wrote in Utah; it was probably also done with the knowledge that, if he ever wanted to go national as a Republican candidate, Romney would have to eventually declare himself pro-life.
O’Brien recognized all of this and tried to corner Romney in their final debate, just over a week before the election. It can be maddening to watch their encounter now. O’Brien’s warnings about Romney’s obvious insincerity on the issue seem prescient today, but at the time, Romney did a rather masterful job deflecting them, pretending he had no idea why anyone would be confused about his position and aligning himself perfectly with the sentiments of swing voters. He even turned the tables on O’Brien, who in an effort to show a clear policy difference with Romney on the issue came out against a parental consent law. In other words, on the one abortion policy area where they officially disagreed, Romney managed to express the more broadly popular view.
The Romney who bested O’Brien in that debate was the same Romney who showed up in Denver last week. And it’s the same Romney who expressed bafflement to the Des Moines Register’s editorial board yesterday over why anyone would think he’d make restricting abortion a priority as president.
There is a difference this time, though. As Irin Carmon points out, restricting abortion absolutely is a priority for the national Republican Party, and if Romney is president he won’t have much leeway to defy this sentiment. You can see it already, in fact, with the Romney campaign’s quick clarifying statement last night that he “would of course support legislation aimed at providing greater protections for life.” Consider it a preview of a Romney presidency. If he strays on an issue important to the right, it won’t be long until the right brings him back into line.
The question for now is whether Romney can downplay reproductive issues enough to eat into the gender gap. At the national level, that gap seems to be evaporating quickly in the wake of last week’s debate. But the Ohio numbers suggest that things might be different in the swing states, where the candidates have concentrated their resources and where voters are presumably more familiar with their messages.