I was not aware of the concept of “forcible rape” until a few days ago. The adjective seemed superfluous, almost like saying “fatal murder”. But thanks to Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the Senate from Missouri, not only is the concept explained, but we are also given to understand that the term is commonly used in pro-life evangelical circles. A “forcible rape” is one where brutal physical violence is used, enabling, what many evangelicals believe, the victim to produce some special trauma-induced secretions to prevent pregnancy. In other words, real rapes, “forcible rapes”, do not make babies and, as an extension, it is now possible to ban all abortions, including those following acts of rape and incest. There is also a school of thought which believes that women who do not bear bruises could be making up stories to get abortions that should not be allowed as they were not “forcible rapes”. These bizarre and offensive observations are not being made by some far-Right segment of the evangelists as one would suspect, but are part of the official stand of the Republican Party.
Bills have been introduced in Congress in recent years using “forcible rape” — and the most consistent vote for the inclusion of this term has been Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, Mitt Romney’s running mate who supports banning abortion totally in every state by constitutional amendment, including pregnancies resulting from rape or incest and dangerous to the mother’s life. Another bill co-sponsored by Ryan and mocked by opponents as “Let Women Die” allows hospitals to decline performing abortions on religious grounds, even if the life of the pregnant woman is at stake. All this is fuel for Democrat activists of women’s rights in swing states, and they need to convince the electorate that a Romney presidency would pose a threat to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision of 1973 that prevents states from banning abortions.
The bitter battle over women voters should come as no surprise to keen followers of the race for president. In 2008, Barack Obama won the female vote by 13 points, 56 per cent to 43 per cent; women outnumbered men at the polls by 10 million; turned out to vote in higher percentages, 60 percent to 56 per cent among men, and tended to vote Democratic. Presently, Obama is still in the lead among women, but according to most polls, it is down to around 10 per cent. On the face of it, a weak economy ought to help Romney win over women, who consistently list this, with men, as the most important issue facing the country. Romney’s main line of attack has been to point out that women have been disproportionately affected by Obama’s economic policies. Republicans claim that women account for 92 per cent of the net jobs lost in Obama’s tenure. But, like all such statistics, it can be contested on many grounds.
First, many of these job losses were in education, thanks to state and local governments getting a smaller stimulus in 2009 than Obama requested because of the robust opposition from congressional Republicans. Also, the downturn that preceded Obama simply hit male-dominated industries like manufacturing first and female-dominated industries and services sector shortly after he took office and was beyond his control. Today, there are only 29,000 fewer women working than when Obama took office in January 2009. In a weakened economy, with time running out, such an involved explanation may not register with many female voters.
Although issues such as health care, education and abortion do not show up as priorities in polls of female voters, it would be a mistake to assume that these will not influence them on election day. An interesting study by Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster, has been conducted on the so-called “Walmart moms”. Walmart moms are female voters with children under 18 who have shopped at the store, known for its frugal pricing, in the previous month. This group of voters is crucial to Romney because Obama’s lead among younger women is large and unlikely to diminish. The study showed that whereas married women needed fewer social protections than the Democrats offer, they prefer the tax benefits that the Republicans favour. These moms view the economy through a much more personal lens than men do — what matters to them is how things are around the kitchen-table for their family. Behind this concern are two crucial issues — education (with the rising cost of going to university) and healthcare.
On the issue of healthcare, Obama has done more than was expected of him. His healthcare law has made it possible for families to keep their children on their insurance policies until they are 26 years of age irrespective of where they live, offer women contraceptive coverage with no co-payments and has ended the practice of charging far higher premiums. Yet, these moms worry that their healthcare will be costlier in future, harder to get and not as good as before. But, in spite of this opening for Romney, other social issues may turn out to be his weak spots in the key swing states, like gay marriage, funding for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (a family planning group) and abortion.
America has come a long way in its attitude to same-sex marriages. If history is any guide, the odds should be stacked against advocates of same-sex marriage. Since 1998, 34 states have gone to the polls to determine whether these ‘marriages’ should be recognized by them. Of these, 33 have been won by those who believe marriage must be the preserve of heterosexual couples. The unlikely exception was Arizona, which later, in 2006, overturned the earlier vote. But with hands-off libertarianism being in vogue and falling church-going rates in many states, attitudes are changing fast. Every nationwide poll conducted in the last two years reveals a majority of Americans in favour of same-sex marriage while only three years back Gallup found opponents winning by a 17 percentage point margin.
The Republican party’s stand on these social issues, especially Ryan’s position on abortion, has allowed the Democrats to brand the Romney ticket as extreme. Young women, like the Walmart moms, place a great deal of importance on what they know about a candidate and how connected they feel to him. They think they know Obama; about Romney and Ryan they are not so sure. Romney will get his chance to make that connection on the evening of October 3, in the first of three presidential debates. If he leaves an impression that he will represent the entire female constituency and not just his ilk, he is likely to close the double-digit gap. If not, and if Obama gains a 13 point edge with women, as he did in the last election, he is likely to get through.