EXETER, N.H. - Over the course of Mitt Romney’s second presidential campaign, his advisers have repeatedly seen something in public and independent polls that was not true in his previous campaigns: he’s regularly winning a larger share of support among women than men.
“We’ve seen that difference for a while,’’ Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, said last week after delivering a presentation in Washington on “Walmart Moms,’’ which he views as a key demographic in the upcoming election. “It may be that, to women, experience makes more of a difference. Experience, leadership - it’s the intangibles.’’
The small but persistent gender gap seems to have emerged because, women say, they appreciate Romney’s values, family story, business background - and, yes, his chiseled good looks - while being less interested in the ideological critiques that seem to be causing him more problems with male voters. It amounts to seeing him through a different lens.
“He is just a gentleman. He’s a good man, a good American family man,’’ Linda Thurlow, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother from York, Maine, said as she prepared to take the ice at a local hockey rink here.
Romney’s strength with female voters - they support him by about five percentage points more than men do - was not something he saw in his 2002 campaign for governor nor his 2008 presidential run.
This time around, Romney’s campaign has significantly softened his image. He rarely wears a suit and tie and he downplays talk of social issues, such as opposition to abortion, and focuses on economic concerns. He often talks about his family - his son Tagg recently sent a video on Twitter of Romney tossing snowballs with the family - and his wife, Ann, has been a frequent presence on the stump.
During a recent trip to Nashua, for example, she talked of the rivalry she and her future husband had in a college poetry class. She also grew emotional as she told a group of women how supportive her husband has been during her battles with multiple sclerosis.
“He said, ‘I’m fine with you if you’re in the wheelchair, that doesn’t matter to me, I love you for who you are,’ ’’ she said. ‘ “I don’t care whether you can’t get dinner on the table anymore, I don’t care. I can eat toast and cereal for the rest of my life. But together we can still do anything.’ ’’
The approach resonates with some voters. According to a Fox News poll, Romney got the support of 23 percent of Republican women nationally, compared with 17 percent for Georgia businessman Herman Cain; 11 percent for Governor Rick Perry of Texas; and 10 percent for Newt Gingrich, former House speaker.
Cain’s support was overwhelmingly from men, while backing for Gingrich and Perry was more evenly divided. The poll was taken before Cain’s campaign was engulfed last week with controversy as he was forced to respond to allegations of sexual harassment.
The emerging trend could also hurt Romney, since men tend to vote in greater numbers. In a Quinnipiac Poll released last week, men were more likely than women to hold Romney’s health care plan, his changed positions on issues, or his more moderate political background against him.
But Romney, the overwhelming front-runner in New Hampshire, could be helped by the female vote in the Jan. 10 primary.
“Among Republicans, about 60 percent of voters are going to be men, and 40 percent women,’’ said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “If Romney is able to get, say, an extra five percentage points among women than he does men, that certainly is a buffer against any insurgent candidate who’s going to challenge him.’’
President Obama leads Romney among women in head-to-head match-ups, and Democrats are eager to prevent that edge from eroding. In their most pointed effort to block Romney from making inroads with women, the Democratic National Committee last week released online ads calling Romney “Absolutely Wrong for Women’’ The ad highlights Romney’s support of banning abortion in most cases and tries to tie him to a referendum in Mississippi that could also limit certain types of birth control.
Romney advisers say the opinions they hear from women in their research - that they are more interested in his experience, demeanor, and commitment to his family - were echoed in interviews with a dozen “hockey moms’’ at the Rinks at Exeter.
They emphasized Romney’s bipartisanship, his business background, and his reluctance to mount any personal attacks. They downplay his perceived flaws, such as the Massachusetts health care plan, and few mention his changed positions.
“We want someone who can work together to solve things, not someone who says, ‘I won,’ ’’ Amanda Anderson, a 49-year-old retired military worker from Durham, N.H., said after a weekly hockey game with about a dozen women. “We want people to play well together for a better outcome.’’
“He’s also good scenery,’’ she added. “That helps.’’
But despite his lead in the polls, Romney can at times be awkward with women on the campaign trail. After touring an elevator company in Merrimack, N.H., he looked at the attractive girlfriend of the company’s general counsel and said, “Nice choice. Just like me.’’ While posing for a photo with a group of waitresses at a diner in Derry, N.H., he pretended that one of them pinched his behind in what Romney called a practical joke.
Romney’s support among women in the past has also never been particularly strong. During his 2002 run for Massachusetts governor, Romney outpolled Shannon O’Brien among male voters by 13 percentage points, but lost female voters by nine points.
During his last presidential campaign, Romney captured about an equal share of men and women voters.
The gender gap for Romney is most striking in Iowa, a state that he has generally avoided, although there are signs he may increase his activity there.
In the recent Iowa Poll, conducted for the Des Moines Register, 26 percent of men said they preferred Cain while 18 percent preferred Romney. But among women, the support was flipped, with 27 percent preferring Romney and 17 percent preferring Cain.
Ann Selzer, a pollster who conducted the survey, said the gender gap for Romney did not exist during the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses four years ago. But she could not find any strong reason for the turnaround.
“He’s the best-looking guy,’’ she quipped. “The interesting question is are they attracted to Mitt Romney, or are they repelled by the other people?’’
Some here in Exeter, for example, said they were concerned over the developing story about Cain and allegations of sexual harassment from three women. Several also said they were turned off by the swagger of Perry.
Said Charlene Hill, a 56-year-old cook at the University of New Hampshire, “He just makes me uncomfortable.’’
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.