October 17, 2012
Mitt Romney’s remarkable surge in the polls following his first debate against Barack Obama was all the more remarkable by the group largely responsible for driving it: women.
But as with an offhanded reference to Big Bird in the first debate, Romney’s answer to a question about pay equity for women and his use of the awkward phrase “binders full of women” quickly created an Internet sensation. Both the memes rocketing around social media and the substance of some of Romney’s answers could still undercut the gains he’s made at a time when both campaigns are fiercely fighting for women’s votes.
Instant polling may not reveal much about the longer-term results of the debate, but an online poll by Google Consumer Surveys showed 48 percent of registered voters thought Obama did a better job in the debate, while 31 percent said Romney did better. Among registered women, though, Obama won 55 to 28.
“I would not be surprised if the gender gap is reignited,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. If Romney had made big gains among women voters, Lawless says, “he gave a lot of it back” last night.
Democrats have for years held an advantage among women voters, and that trend had seemed on track to continue this election. Bill Clinton won the women’s vote by 8 and 18 points, respectively, in 1992 and 1996. Al Gore edged George W. Bush with women, 54 to 43. John Kerry won the women’s vote 51 to 48 in 2004, when a wider margin would have put him in the White House. And the Obama-Biden ticket beat John McCain and Sarah Palin 56 percent to 43 percent among women in 2008.
Obama had long held a sizeable lead among women this time around, too, but some recent polls showed that Romney had managed to close that gender gap significantly after the first presidential debate. A Pew poll published last week found that Romney had opened a 49 percent to 45 percent lead over Obama among likely voters – and had erased an 18-point deficit among likely women voters. A USA Today article on Monday detailing Romney’s four-point lead in its latest swing state poll, conducted with the Gallup Organization, ran under the headline “Women push Romney into lead.”
“In every poll, we’ve seen a major surge among women in favorability for Romney,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told USA Today. “Women went into the [first] debate actively disliking Romney, and they came out thinking he might understand their lives and might be able to get something done for them.” And Politico’s Mike Allen previewed last night’s Hofstra debate by writing, “Each candidate will be trying to come across as the good husband.”
The polls will tell – but Romney may have missed that mark with his responses, including his “binders full of women” phrase. That answer came in response to a question about workplace and pay inequality. In answering first, Obama talked about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill he signed into law as president, which made it easier for workers to pursue wage discrimination lawsuits.
Romney, in his response, explained how, as governor of Massachusetts, he pushed his staff to hire more women in his administration: “And I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t we find women that are also qualified?’ And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The “binders full of women” phrase took off on social media, with a Twitter account, Facebook pages and a Tumblr blog popping up quickly. The Romneys_Binder Twitter account reportedly drew 12,000 followers before the debate had ended, while a Facebook page had garnered more than 280,000 “Likes” as of midday Wednesday. On Amazon, the product page for the "Avery Durable View Binder with 2 Inch EZ-Turn Ring" has been flooded with page after page of cheeky reviews along the lines of "I have twelve women I need to put in a binder, but this only holds six."
Left-wing political reporter and blogger David Bernstein in the Boston Phoenix claims that Romney’s account of the binder story wasn’t accurate – that a bipartisan group of women had formed a group to address the lack of women in senior state government roles. That group put together the binder and presented it to Romney, rather than being asked for it.
But while the “binders” line went viral, it was the rest of Romney’s response that could be seen as even more off-putting to women voters who weren’t distracted by the binder comment:
“Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.”
Romney continued: "We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women."
That response came across as paternalistic and anachronistic to some, while others applauded the idea. “Even high profile women who are working in traditionally male dominated careers are still way more likely to be in charge of the household tasks and childcare,” Lawless says, noting that Romney’s phrasing may still have come off as tone deaf.
“Mitt Romney has obviously been watching too many episodes of ‘Leave It To Beaver’ on TV Land on the campaign trail,” wrote Suzi Parker at The Washington Post’s website. “The days of Donna Reed are long over, Mr. Romney.”
Women's interpretation of the comments will be largely colored by their political views, says Rebecca Deen, chair of the department of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. While progressives were offended, she suggests, "some independent women saw that and thought, 'Oh, gosh, I wish my boss would do that.'"
The two candidates also clashed on contraceptive care and abortion, and Romney sought to make the case that he would help women by helping the economy overall. The Republican repeatedly mentioned that 3.5 million more women are living in poverty today than when Obama took office. “I’m going to help women in America get good work by getting a stronger economy and by supporting women in the workforce,” he said.
The early poll results show that Romney still came out well ahead of Obama on economic questions, though Obama closed the gap there some. In a CBS News snap poll, 65 percent said they thought Romney would better handle the economy, while 34 percent said Obama would. Before the debate, 71 percent said they thought Romney would be better at steering the economy. The CBS poll also found that Obama topped Romney, 56 to 43, on who would be more likely to help the middle class.
Those core pocketbook issues obviously matter to women at least as much as they do to men – and in a soft economy, they likely matter more than issues like pay equity. “The economy is the most important issue for women and men across the country, no question,” says Lawless. But, she adds, these social issues can color voters’ perceptions of a candidate and influence which lever they pull when they get to their polling place.
This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 18.