Mitt Romney’s enormous polling bump on the heels of his first debate face-off with President Barack Obama has, for arguably the first time in the 2012 election cycle, put a White House win in the realm of possibility for the Republican presidential candidate.
But there is still one demographic the Romney campaign would need to seal the deal: women. That means Romney, who spent the Republican primary embracing conservative ideology on women's issues, must put on his Massachusetts-moderate hat in an effort to make voters forget he has spent the entire campaign pushing for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, skirting around the issue of equal pay and supporting the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
That’s exactly what he did on Tuesday, when he told the Des Moines Register editorial board that he would not press for legislation to restrict abortion rights if elected in November, reportedly saying “there is no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” The statement is already being framed as Romney’s latest campaign controversy, probably because his will-he-or-won’t-he support for abortion rights is one of the easiest criticisms to throw at his credibility as a candidate.
Romney began his political career as a pro-choice candidate. When he challenged the late Sen. Ted Kennedy for his seat in 1994, he reportedly told the leaders of his Mormon faith he had to run as a pro-choicer because it was the only way he could be elected in Massachusetts. When he considered running for governor of Utah in 2001, he similarly reframed himself as pro-life, reportedly even writing to the Salt Lake Tribune to say he did not want to be "labeled" as pro-choice in their articles. Then, when he instead ran for the Massachusetts governorship in 2002 -- the only general election he has ever won -- he has once again supported abortion rights, a position he maintained until he decided to seek the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
Voters are clearly aware of Romney’s ambiguous position on abortion. Although a recent Bloomberg poll of swing voters in Ohio and Virginia found Romney narrowly leading among married women, those voters were disproportionately concerned about unemployment and the economy and tended to say the Republican would be better at creating jobs. However, Bloomberg notes most of those women said Obama was more in tune with their concerns about reproductive rights and health care, particularly mandated insurance coverage for contraception (which would be out the window if Romney managed to repeal "Obamacare," as he said he wants to).
A CNN poll released Tuesday is demonstrative of Romney’s challenge. Among men in Ohio, Romney is reportedly leading Obama by a solid 56 percent to 42 percent. But among women, the president is winning with an astonishing 22-point margin (60 to 38 percent), translating into an overall 51-47 percent lead for Obama.
That’s why Romney is stepping up his efforts to court female voters. The key is paying attention to the technicalities the Republican presidential candidate uses to disguise his true position on women’s issues. As William Saletan notes, voters already saw Romney play this game during his 2002 gubernatorial run, when as a candidate he repeatedly vowed to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose” before reinterpreting that pledge as not to “change our abortion laws either to restrict abortion or to facilitate it” once he was actually elected.
It’s progressed to the point that Romney’s campaign website now says “he believes that the right next step is for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.” In a July letter to the anti-abortion website LifeNews, Romney vowed to overturn the landmark case – which he described as “bad law and bad medicine” – and promised to only appoint pro-life Supreme Court judges if elected.
Romney’s use of technicalities to obfuscate his position extends past abortion rights. For all his talk about being the candidate that would economically empower women, Romney has never clarified whether he supports either the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the 2009 law that gives women greater power to seek restitution for pay discrimination, or the Paycheck Fairness Act.
The latter, which was blocked by Senate Republicans earlier this year, would close loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act and strengthen incentives to prevent pay discrimination. But while women still earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, Romney refuses to say whether he supports the law.
In response to a question about his stance on the Paycheck Fairness Act, Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul directed the International Business Times to an April interview with ABC News in which the candidate said he “certainly supported pay equity for women” but did not say if he would have signed the Lilly Ledbetter Law. Saul did not address Romney's position on the Paycheck Fairness Act.