At Mitt Romney’s final rally in the must-win battleground of Virginia, the signs told the story. “Moms for Mitt,” they read, printed in the kind of quaint script you might see on a cake-mix package from the 1950s. And in the commonwealth, where, as elsewhere, a gender gap yawns between the supporters of Romney and President Barack Obama, the Republican presidential nominee sought to present himself as the kind of husband, father and president whose dinner any woman would yearn to hurry home to prepare.
The message Romney sought to impart as he stood before an enthusiastic crowd of some 8,000 supporters was targeted not so much at the women in attendance at the raucous rally at George Mason University’s Patriot Center, but those who would see footage from the event on their local news that evening, just as they were checking their calendars to see when they could fit in a visit to the polls, maybe on a lunch hour, or in between errands.
Introducing the presidential hopeful, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, once considered a top prospect for the ticket's number-two spot, described Romney: "He's an incredible person of faith; he believes in God. He loves his wife of over four decades. He has five kids, 18 grandkids."
Are you listening, women? The man loves his wife.
Before Romney took the podium with wife Ann at his side, the audience was treated to a video about the Mitt-Ann love story that was the sort of thing a man might think was standard fare for Lifetime Television, the women’s network that also sponsors a well-regarded quadrennial poll (PDF) of women’s attitudes toward issues, politics and politicians. (The video was first shown at the Republican National Convention in August.)
“Virginia,” said Ann Romney, “are we going to be neighbors soon?” A roar went up from the crowd. The timbre of Mrs. Romney’s voice offered stark contrast to those of the four politicians who spoke before her; all are men. (They included Gov. Bob McDonnell, Senate candidate George Allen, and congressional candidates Chris Perkins and Patrick Murray.)
It’s the economy, sweetie
Romney had clearly taken note of polling that shows the economy and jobs to be the top issue (PDF) for women of all political stripes, and the fact that, for all the talk of the Republican war on women, polling finds little gap between the opinions of women and men on such matters as abortion and insurance coverage for contraception.
And Romney’s play to women seemed predicated on the widely-held notion (not quite true) that women don’t like partisan politics, and his hope to bring women who identify as independents into his column. So he painted Obama as a divisive figure who was bad for the economy, and himself as a uniter and job-creator. He used the world "independent" four times in his remarks.
Speaking of Obama, Romney said: “He promised to be... a post-partisan president...and instead he has blamed and attacked and divided...He said he was going to focus on job creation; instead he focused on Obamacare that killed jobs.”
He went on: "If you look at the big debates that have gone on in this country, not as a Republican or a Democrat, but as an independent thinker, as an American, and you watch what's happened to this country over the last four years with an independent voice, you'd hope that President Obama would live up to his promise to bring people together, to solve big problems. He hasn't; I will."
Romney went on to depict the president as a promise-breaker and himself as a promise-keeper, doing so by reiterating the lie -- just one among oh, so many that have sprung from his lips in this campaign -- that Obama had once promised to bring unemployment down to 5.2 percent in his first term. That Obama never did has become immaterial to Romney supporters; of the five women I interviewed at the rally, most volunteered Romney’s honesty as one of his most sterling qualities.
So it stood to reason that Romney would go on to repeat his lie about Obama “raid[ing]” Medicare by $716 billion. (See AlterNet’s Joshua Holland debunk that one, here.)
The candidate uttered not a word about birth control, abortion, or the “religious freedom” he has said in past appearances was under siege by the Obama administration.
Janet O'Connor, 53, attended the rally with two friends. All of them are doing volunteer work for the Romney campaign. I asked if she found Romney to be everything she hoped he would be.
"And then some," she replied. "Even more -- he was just so genuine. We're just so grateful and so proud to have been able to be here and to listen to him." Like many of the women I spoke to, she described Romney as her first choice in the Republican primary field.
But someone must have told him that women, often acting as the family taxi service, are keenly aware of gas prices, so Romney trotted out the trope about gasoline prices, pretending that the president has control of the pricing of a global commodity, and failing to note that gas prices were at a record low when Obama took office because the economy had just tanked at the hands of George W. Bush.
“By the way, gasoline -- that now costs $2,000 more a family than when he was elected,” Romney said of Obama.
Incidentally, the gasoline trope echoes the talking points of Americans for Prosperity, the astroturf group founded by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, who also fund a think tank housed at the university where the rally took place. AFP, which is turning out the vote, presumably on Romney's behalf, has been giving away free gas in battleground states in order to drive their trope home.
The implicit promise, of course, is that if elected president, Romney would assume the powers of a Lord Bountiful, bestowing cheap gasoline upon the grateful citizens -- especially the moms.
Romney’s women problem
Just as Obama is on the short side of a gap with Romney in the support he enjoys among white men, Romney suffers a similar gap with support from women. But it’s not an even trade, because, as AlterNet’s Lynn Stuart Parramore reports, women vote in greater numbers than men.
The conventional wisdom holds that Romney’s electoral map holds no prospect for victory unless he wins Virginia, where he and Obama are locked in a virtual tie, according to the polls. So his only hope, by this reasoning, lies in achieving a higher voter turnout than Obama.
In Virginia, the gender gap is particularly acute. According to the latest Public Policy Polling survey of likely voters, “Obama leads by an incredible 17 points among Virginia women, who comprise 55 percent of PPP's sample,” according to Business Insider. Romney leads among the commonwealth’s men by 16 points, but they comprise a smaller percentage of the electorate. So unless Romney can win more women, his prospects for victory remain iffy. (The PPP poll, however, gives Obama a 3-point advantage over all, but that’s within the margin of error.)
If only those independent women voters regarded Romney with the same awe as the women I met in the Patriot Center, Romney would win hands-down.
"Seeing what I've seen today, I think he's going to take Virginia, overwhelmingly," said Maureen Caddigan, a county supervisor in Prince William County. "No doubt in my mind."
Even among women? "I can't imagine why they'd say women weren't for him," Caddigan said of Romney. "He's handsome, he's presidential, he's got a beautiful marriage, a beautiful wife -- why wouldn't women love him?"