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The race was on for independent women voters

Candidates stage an all-out effort to woo key bloc

First came the mail, at least two pieces a day, little fliers and big, glossy books. Next came the neighborhood canvassers, knocking on the front door of their Falls Church home, almost a half-dozen visits. Then there were the phone calls. So many calls. Three of them on the night before Election Day, all in the same hour, each from President Obama's campaign, asking to speak with Kristina Cartwright — and not her husband, Jamie.

Does Ms. Cartwright plan to vote? Does she need a ride to her polling place?

"I'll pick up the phone, and they have no questions about me whatsoever, don't want to know," Mr. Cartwright said with a laugh. "I vote. But I might as well be some random guy in the house."

A 37-year old international development worker and mother of three, Mrs. Cartwright is also a registered independent female voter in a key battleground state. Which makes all the difference.

"It's weird being targeted, and I didn't figure it out at first," she said. "I figured I was just missing the calls that Jamie was getting. But he's a man and a registered Republican. So he hasn't gotten any."

The 2012 presidential campaign was many things: a choice between competing visions for the future of the nation; an anonymous corporate cash-fueled post-Citizens United economic stimulus plan for swing state local television stations; a showdown between a self-disciplined family man who went to Harvard Law and a self-disciplined family man who went to Harvard Law.

In many ways, however, it was primarily a contest for the female portion of the electorate, with Mr. Obama's campaign attempting to exploit and expand a potentially decisive Democrat-Republican gender gap — the same gap Mitt Romney's campaign sought to minimize and narrow.

Mr. Obama's repeated, non-sequiturial mentions of education policy during the first two presidential debates? Mr. Romney's much-mocked binders of women? Constant talk about abortion and contraception, with Democratic surrogates hyping up a "War on Women" and Republican surrogates scoffing at the same? All part of a bipartisan war for women, including Mrs. Cartwright.

"I think that's exactly what we've seen," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. "Virginia is a perfect example. I can't turn on the television without seeing an ad about how [Republican Senate candidate] George Allen and Mitt Romney will ensure that women will have no rights, ever. And I can't change the channel without some other woman saying, 'no, no, no, these guys are actually good.'

"Of course, it's not that surprising. There has been a gap in every election since the 1980s."

Minding the gap

The demographic and electoral math is plain. Women make up more than half of the populace. They are more likely to vote than men. While a majority of women have voted for the Democratic candidate in five consecutive presidential elections, a majority of men have done so only twice, in 1992 and 2008.

Why the split between the sexes? Political scientists have found that women are more likely to support social safety-net programs and less likely to support wars and military campaigns than men, two factors that generally favor Democrats. According to both Ms. Lawless and pollster John Zogby, conservative positions on abortion and contraception also have hurt the Republican Party's appeal with women.

A pre-election Gallup poll of female registered voters in 12 key states found that 39 percent of women ranked abortion as the most important issue for women in the 2012 election, and that 60 percent of those same voters rated government policies on birth control as an extremely or very important issue.

By contrast, registered male voters in the same poll did not include abortion among their top 10 most-important issues.

"For Romney, the issue is reproductive rights," Mr. Zogby said. "Does he really represent a party that is questioning contraception, talking 'legitimate rape' and rape-born pregnancies as God's gift? It's not surprising that there is an issue there for women."

Whatever the underlying causes, the "gender gap" can be — and has been — electorally decisive. Four years ago, women voters supported Mr. Obama over Republican candidate Sen. John McCain 56 percent to 43 percent — essentially ensuring the Democratic candidate's victory, given that Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain among men by a single percentage point, 49 percent to 48 percent.

In Gallup's final pre-election survey of likely 2012 voters, Mr. Romney held 49 percent of the vote to Mr. Obama's 48 percent. Predictably, support for each candidate broke along sex lines, with Mr. Romney holding a 53 percent to 43 percent lead among likely male voters and Mr. Obama holding a 53 percent to 44 percent lead among women. In addition, a review of more than 70 October polls by Tufts University professor Richard Eichenberg found that Mr. Obama led among female voters in all 11 battleground states and was running ahead of his margin of victory among women in Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia.

Given his declining support among male voters, Mr. Obama's Election Day strategy was clear: turn out women and protect his advantage against Mr. Romney's best efforts to shrink it.

"There's a reason you see the Obama campaign micro-targeting female voters," Ms. Lawless said. "The Democratic Party is very well aware that they need this gender gap to exist to win elections."

All the single ladies

According to the nonprofit Voter Participation Center, the "gender gap" is actually shorthand for a bigger electoral asymmetry: a "marriage gap" among women themselves.

In 2004, unmarried women voted for Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry over incumbent President George W. Bush by a 25 percentage point margin. Four years later, Mr. Obama enjoyed a whopping 44-point margin over Mr. McCain among unmarried women — essentially accounting for the entire "gender gap," given that Mr. McCain won married women by 4 points.

"Unmarried women were 23 percent of the electorate in 2008 and are the fastest-growing big demographic group," said Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center. "The way that they vote and the margins they give candidates have been and can be absolutely determinative. You see that not only in the top of the ticket, but also in senatorial and gubernatorial races."

On the eve of the election, Mr. Zogby was more blunt.

"The whole election boils down to one factor," he said. "Single women. Obama certainly leads with them, but the real issue is that about 10 percent of them were undecided. So the questions are, why and will they vote?"

Both presidential candidates spent much of the campaign attempting to address that question, albeit in different ways. Mr. Obama touted his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — a federal law that makes it easier for women to file pay-discrimination lawsuits — as well as a provision in the federal health care law that requires insurers to provide free birth control.

Mr. Obama also attacked Mr. Romney for being noncommittal on whether he would have signed the Ledbetter law as president, pledging to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood and for backing Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who drew widespread criticism for stating that if a pregnancy results from rape, that life is still "something God intended."

Allison Kellogg, a 50-year-old loan servicer from Henrico County, Va., said those issues played a crucial role in her decision to vote for Mr. Obama.

"That was the main reason, Romney's position on women's rights as far as abortion and birth control," she said. "Game over. You can have your own opinions on those, but they're not topics for legislation. And I would feel the same way if Barack Obama started spewing the same foolishness that I feel the Republicans do."

For his part, Mr. Romney stated that the president had "failed America's women," repeatedly emphasizing that the sluggish national economy was not only Mr. Obama's fault, but also particularly harmful to women. Moreover, many political observers read Mr. Romney's noninterventionist foreign policy stance in the third debate — a shift from more-bellicose Republican primary rhetoric — as an effort to reassure women voters.

Mr. Romney's only televised ad about reproductive issues featured a woman at her home computer stating that the Republican candidate "doesn't oppose contraception at all," and "thinks abortions should be an option" in some cases; another commercial posted on Mr. Romney's website featured humanizing testimonials from women who had worked with him during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.

"Romney's goal was to mitigate women's concerns about social policy issues and get them thinking about the economy instead," Ms. Lawless said. "When voters are not primed to think about social issues, they are not likely to favor one party over the other."

For her part, Mrs. Cartwright said that she sometimes felt as though both parties were pandering to her sex — for example, she was less concerned with Mr. Romney's soft-serve debate style than what she perceived to be his superficial statements on Middle East policy — and that she welcomed the end of the campaign.

"It's ridiculous how much we have been targeted by these campaigns," she said. "Constantly on the radio, constantly in the mailbox. It will be nice to have it be over with."

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