COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amid signs that President Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney among women may be shrinking after the first presidential debate, Leslie Markworth is the kind of voter that is giving Democrats anxiety fits.
“Romney was much more engaging,” Markworth, 39, said at a farmers’ market in Columbus, in the heart of a crucial battleground state. “President Obama missed the opportunity to really take a stand and talk about his next four years. I was disappointed.”
Even a slight drop in Obama’s longstanding advantage among women could spell big trouble for his reelection, and after one post-debate poll found Obama’s support among white women and voters under 50 plunging dramatically, some Democratic strategists have been urging the president to make a stronger appeal to women when he meets Romney for the second debate on Tuesday.
Romney seems to be making a renewed push to gain ground among women. He told an Iowa newspaper this week that he did not envision pushing any laws regarding abortion — a statement that contradicted his earlier promises to defund Planned Parenthood, and which his campaign swiftly retreated from.
At least in Ohio, a state both campaigns are lavishing with candidate visits, Obama still seems to have the upper hand. Despite her exasperation with the president, Markworth said she will still vote for him, citing his support for renewable energy. And the president’s support from women seems to be holding up in Ohio, where almost 9 in 10 voters report they have already made up their minds and thousands have already voted.
In a CNN poll conducted after the debate, Obama held a lead of four percentage points in Ohio. Men favored Romney overwhelmingly, 56 percent to 42 percent, but Obama had an even greater margin among women, 60 percent to 38 percent. Another Ohio poll, by the Wall Street Journal, NBC, and Marist, showed him maintaining a six-point lead in the state.
The vice presidential debate — which, unlike the first presidential debate, touched on abortion rights, an issue where surveys show women are more likely to agree with Obama — may also have helped bolster Obama’s standing with women. But Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who organized focus groups of unmarried women in Columbus and in Fairfax, Va., in conjunction with the Obama-Romney debate, said in a strategy memo that Obama missed an opportunity to reach those voters. If he wants to connect with them in the next debate, Greenberg wrote, he will need to go beyond just touting his support for abortion rights and connect that stance with women’s economic concerns.
Whatever strategy Obama pursues, interviews with Democratic and Democratic-leaning women in Ohio suggest he has some ground to make up. The first debate left some of his supporters demoralized, and even caused a few of them to take another look at Romney.
Cathy Klim, a project manager from Circleville, Ohio, who voted for Obama in 2008 and said protecting abortion rights is a high priority for her, said she had been planning to vote for Obama again but was now undecided.
“I am very surprised by Obama’s performance. It makes me question whether he was qualified to do the job,” Klim said. “I truly feel like Romney would be a step back in terms of women’s rights, especially choice. The economy is a temporary thing, but when you’re talking about changes in women’s rights, that is a huge step back. I have a daughter and I want her to be able to make the choices that are right for her.”
Still, Obama came close to ruling himself out, in her view.
“I wouldn’t ever be voting for” Romney, Klim said. “I’d be voting against Obama.”
Mandy Henderson, 33, a landscaper and interior designer from Granville, Ohio, said she voted for Obama in 2008 but did not feel engaged this time. Obama looked “very tired” at the debate, she said. Henderson said she may sit out Election Day. “I won’t vote against abortion rights. But I don’t see much of a difference except on that,” she said.
Even if next week’s debate reassures wavering supporters, the president’s rough ride since the debate has underscored how few paths to victory he has if he cannot maintain his edge among women voters.
“If Obama gets 50-50 among women, he’s going to lose this election,” said Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, whose poll showed the dramatic dropoff in support among women. In Pew’s September poll, Obama led by 18 percentage points. This month, after the debate, the candidates were tied; white women accounted for virtually all of the shift, Dimock said.
Susan J. Carroll, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, said Obama had failed to heed textbook political strategies for appealing to women in the first debate but could make up for it in the next two.
“What pollsters always say about women voters, and I think it’s very true, is what works best with women voters is talking with them in a kitchen-table kind of way that relates to their lives,” she said. “Obama just failed in the debate to address issues those women are concerned with — the obvious economic issues that are paramount in this race — and failed to address them in a way they could relate to.”
The silver lining for Obama, Carroll said, was that female voters ought to be the easiest for him to win back.
“These women are easier voters to bring back or to sway back in his direction, because they have a greater inclination to support a Democratic candidate like Obama if he just makes the right appeals and talks their language,” she said.
In Ohio, voter attitudes seem to have hardened. In the CNN poll, only 1 percent of voters were undecided. The state has been buffeted with political mailers, robocalls, and TV commercials. “My phone — it’s nonstop,” said Janet Jenkins, 50, of Dublin, a school cook and farmers’ market vendor who plans to vote for Romney. “I don’t even pick it up anymore.”
An additional wrinkle in Ohio is that each passing day dulls the potential impact of any last-minute shifts, since about one-third of voters are expected to vote early.
Cole Londeree, 23, of Worthington, Ohio, said she had cast an early ballot for the president, but was disturbed by what she saw from Obama in the debate. “He didn’t seem like he wanted to win,” she said. Londeree said that that she still would have voted for him. But, she said, “I would have had a little less confidence.”
Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.