Two weeks ago, before the first presidential debate, National Public Radio reported that the gender gap in the 2012 election could reach historic proportions, and that women voters were heavily favoring President Barack Obama over his opponent. Then (almost literally) overnight, the tables turned. Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s performance in the first presidential debate seemed to erode the significant lead President Obama previously enjoyed with women. While some polls had President Obama leading Gov. Romney by as much as 20 points among women less than two weeks ago, one of the latest polls shows the president leading Gov. Romney by only six points—and another shows him just breaking even with his opponent.
Although contraception and equal pay took center stage at the Democratic National Convention in September, the president failed to even mention these issues during the debate—or, for that matter, discuss women at all. He also allowed Gov. Romney to get away with pretending he is actually concerned about the safety net for the poor and the middle class, despite his “47 percent” comment and his policy proposals that gut crucial programs for these groups. The polling is clear: The majority of women voters believe that the country must protect the safety net programs that support the poor and middle-class families of America.
The president’s silence during the debate on these major issues for women voters is part of the reason why the gender gap has started to close for Gov. Romney in this election. But Gov. Romney’s radical record and reported positions on women’s health and rights are why the president can still regain the wide margins with women that he previously enjoyed.
Tonight’s vice presidential debate could be a game changer if Vice President Joe Biden speaks up where the president fell silent. While Gov. Romney has recently attempted to portray himself as a moderate candidate, few things in this election have the potential to expose his radically conservative positions and provide a starker contrast between the candidates for women voters than does studying the positions of the men they chose as their running mates.
Vice President Biden has a long history protecting women’s health and rights. He authored the Violence Against Women Act as a senator and appointed the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women once he was in the White House. He is a strong supporter of Roe V. Wade and access to contraception. While serving in the Senate, he voted for the Prevention First Act, which ensured that private health care plans offered the same level of coverage for contraception as other prescription drugs; increased funding for family planning services in both Title X, which provides free family planning and reproductive health services to low-income women, and Medicaid, which is the largest public provider of family planning services in the country; and established public education initiatives on emergency contraception. He has fought alongside the president in the crucial debates over universal health care and preserving the safety net for poor and middle-class families.
In contrast, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)—Gov. Romney’s running mate—has repeatedly taken action to limit women’s rights and access to health care. He was among the congressional Republicans who attempted to redefine rape under the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. When Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) made his infamous remarks about women’s bodies being able to shut down a pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape,” Rep. Ryan fell in line with Gov. Romney when he distanced himself from Rep. Akin, but ultimately Rep. Ryan stood by his personal position that women should not be allowed access to abortion services when they have been raped.
Rep. Ryan has also supported fetal personhood rights, which would ban abortion with no exceptions—not even in cases of rape, incest, or maternal endangerment—and threaten the legality of common forms of birth control and fertility treatments. He voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which removed a large barrier women have faced in suing employers for pay discrimination. He proposed deep cuts to safety net programs that are vital for women’s health and economic well-being such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which makes tremendous advancements for women’s health, and proposed slashing Head Start child care programs. And he supported conservative efforts to put a woman’s employer between her and her birth control.
There is no question that in order to win this election, Gov. Romney will need to not only break even with the president among independent female voters but to actually pull ahead with this crucial voting block. That will be hard to do, though, if Vice President Biden effectively exposes Rep. Ryan’s record in the vice presidential debate.
In June, EMILY’s List—an organization that supports pro-choice women candidates for public office—conducted a survey of independent women in battleground states, asking these voters about various Republican positions, which included major proposals in the Ryan budget. Without mentioning Rep. Ryan by name, the survey asked women about Republican plans to replace Medicare with a voucher system, to raise the retirement age, to reduce Social Security benefits, and to give tax breaks to millionaires and large corporations. Sixty-five percent of the independent women surveyed found these proposals to be convincing reasons to vote against Republican congressional candidates.
Gov. Romney may have outperformed President Obama in the presidential debate last week, but he hasn’t won support from women on the merits of the issues they care about most. If Vice President Biden holds Rep. Ryan accountable on his policy positions—including the issues of reproductive health and the safety net, where his record is irrefutably extreme—then the gender gap will likely widen in President Obama’s favor once more.
Lindsay Rosenthal is a Special Assistant with the Health Policy and Women’s Health and Rights teams at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.