Down to the wire for Florida's women's vote

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There’s a difference between how women and men decide who to vote for – but it’s not really clear just how big the difference is. Women favored Barack Obama by double digits earlier in the campaign, but Mitt Romney has erased that lead since shortly after the first presidential debate, in early October, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

Now, in the dash to the finish line, the race has tightened in Florida yet again, and women may well tip the balance.

The key to winning the state is suburban women who voted for Obama in 2008 but went Republican in 2010, suggests political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida.

“That group is really the big question mark, and if they swing towards Romney, he will probably win Florida,” said MacManus. “And if they can be brought back in by the Obama campaign, then he may have a good shot at the state.”

Obama’s time in Florida has been cut short by Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the East Coast, but on Friday the president was represented by arguably his best surrogate – former President Bill Clinton, who barnstormed five cities statewide. Romney’s backers have also been heavily active in Florida in recent weeks – with polls showing him slightly ahead of Obama in the nation’s biggest swing state.

While the Obama campaign has tried to suggest that Republicans are out of touch with values many women care about, women who back Romney have said that Obama is out of step with broader American values.

“We know the difference between taking care of the poor and the needy the way we’ve been taught in the Bible and the consequences of socialist programs,” said Beatriz Macia, president of the Tallahassee Tea Party at a “Women for Romney” rally last month at the Capitol.

Women vote differently from men, said MacManus. They have less tolerance for negative campaigning, and they tend to be late deciders. But in Florida’s 2008 presidential election, women out-voted men by 597,000, the largest gap among battleground states – so the candidates have courted them.

Although both sides say the economy is the main thing for all voters this year – including women – they disagree on how much so-called “women’s issues” are at play. Many Democrats say issues like abortion and access to contraception are driving women to their side. Republicans say those concerns are dwarfed by the economy for most women.

Retiring state senator Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said Democrats made a mistake by focusing more on abortion and contraception than pocketbook issues.

“I think the Democrats naturally do have a better position with women,” Dockery said. “But they have not stated that in the proper way in this campaign season, and that’s why you’ve seen the gap close.”

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, agrees that most women are focused on the economy, but pointed out that the first bill Obama signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was about how the economy effects women, and which Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted against.

While Republicans argue that women suffer more in the economic downturn than men – and that Obama should be held to account for that – Democrats argue that it’s because they still aren’t paid the same wages for the same work.

Castor also noted that the election season has seen some provocative comments on violence against women, reproductive issues and access to contraception. She pointed to her House colleague, GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri, who said women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape.”

And Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite, became the center of a national firestorm when he said it was “God’s will” if a woman gets pregnant from having been raped.

“The Republican Congress and now Mitt Romney’s Republican platform take a hard right turn and say when it comes to women’s health and reproductive choice, women don’t have a say – and they have to carry pregnancies to term even in the case of rape and incest,” Castor said.

“I have a lot of moderate Republican friends who think that is too extreme.”

Not Carlie Rogers, a Republican state committeewoman from Brevard.

“I’ve met people whose mothers were raped,” Rogers said. “And when you see them, you know that (to give birth) was the right decision for that mother. So I think you shouldn’t make an exception. It’s not the child’s fault.”

Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who narrowly lost to Gov. Rick Scott in 2010, is campaigning for Democrats statewide. She said she’s “very upset” to hear women quoted as dismissing the idea that birth control should be a campaign issue.

“Well, that is not so,” said Sink. “Women have to be very, very concerned when you have candidates out there saying things like, ‘Oh, Planned Parenthood? We’ll just get rid of that.”

Betty Castor, the first woman to serve in the Florida Cabinet (and the mother of Kathy Castor), said she thinks women are losing ground on issues they fought for decades ago.

“I think we’re going backwards,” she said. “It is a big fight. And of course, choice has always been a divisive issue – and it’s still a divisive issue. But I never thought that the issue of contraception would become front and center.”

MacManus said Obama’s ability to make up the gender gap depends on his campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Much has been touted of their organizational superiority, the hundred-plus offices to less than 50 for Romney,” she said. “But late deciders in Florida tend to be young people and women. And consequently, Obama has still got a shot at the women’s vote.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.