An interesting story from last winter: An e-mail friend, a staunch Republican who lives in an affluent suburb far from Washington, was watching one of the Republican debates with his wife, a staunch Democrat.
He was surprised by her response to Mitt Romney. “He’s a grown-up. He’s someone who is reliable,” he told me she said. “People will feel safe if he is in charge.”
I’ve been thinking about that e-mail in the wake of the first presidential debate on October 3 and the vice-presidential debate last week. (This is written on deadline before the October 16 Long Island debate.)
There’s obviously been a surge toward Romney. He was trailing in just about every national poll conducted before October 3. He has been leading in most of those conducted since.
His national lead was matched as swing-state polls came in. In the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, he’s ahead or even in states with 248 electoral votes. He’s ahead, even, or within two points in states with 301 electoral votes, 31 more than the 270-vote majority.
Fascinatingly, it appears that he’s made greater gains among women than among men. The USA Today/Gallup poll has him running even with Barack Obama among women, 48 to 48 percent. Pew Research Center’s post-debate poll has women at 47 to 47.
That’s a huge difference from 2008, when the exit poll showed Barack Obama leading John McCain among women by 56 to 43 percent. Men favored Obama by only one point.
All the evidence suggests that the first debate made the difference. “In every poll we’ve seen a major surge in favorability for Romney,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told USA Today’s Susan Page.
“Women went into the debate actively disliking Romney,” she went on, “and they came out thinking he might understand their lives and might be able to get something done for them.”
That sounds a lot like what my e-mail friend’s wife said last winter.
Obama campaign strategists are pooh-poohing the notion that Romney could be making gains with women.
“Why, he’s against ‘access to contraception,’” they thunder. That was something we heard a lot about at the Democratic National Convention.
But it’s code language. “Access to contraception” turns out not to mean access to contraception. No one anywhere in the country is proposing to ban contraceptives. The Supreme Court ruled in 1965 — 47 years ago! — that states can’t do that.
The code language refers to the Obamacare requirement that employers’ health insurance pay for contraception. So “access” means you won’t have to pay the $9 a month that contraceptives cost at Walmart.
Big deal. That’s about the price of two pumpkin lattes at Starbucks.
Maybe it’s just possible that women voters are more concerned about an economy where 23 million people are out of work or have quit looking.
Or about a president who the day after the murder of a U.S. ambassador flew off to a Las Vegas fundraiser and for two weeks kept blaming that murder on a spontaneous response to a video, contrary to what his State Department knew on day one.
Joe Biden tried to appeal to women by predicting that a Supreme Court with more Republican appointees might overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal.
One is reminded that Biden was near the bottom of his class at Syracuse Law School. A Roe reversal, which is highly unlikely no matter who is confirmed to the high court, would simply return the issue to the states. Abortion wouldn’t be banned anywhere except, maybe, in Utah, Louisiana, and Guam.
Once upon a time, abortion was a defining issue for many voters. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, partisan preferences on both sides were linked to strong religious and moral beliefs. Voters didn’t switch parties much.
In the last half a dozen years, voters have responded more to events, emerging issues, and leaders’ strengths and weaknesses. Many switched parties to vote for Obama. Some, many of them women, are switching now to vote for Romney.
Women tend to be more risk-averse than men, and the gender gap grew when Reagan Republicans were depicted as scaling back welfare-state protections.
The debates may have shifted the perception of risk. The downcast Obama and the cackling Biden may have sounded dangerously risky. Many women may have felt, as my e-mail friend’s wife said last winter, that they would feel safe if Romney were in charge.
Readers who watched Tuesday’s debate can judge whether that still holds.
— Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner © 2012 The Washington Examiner