Female voters have turned their backs on President Obama in droves, a development that Democrats vow to reverse as Mr. Obama gears up his re-election campaign.
In 2008, women helped deliver the presidency to Mr. Obama, voting for the Democrat 56 percent to 43 percent over Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. Men split their votes between the two candidates almost evenly.
Black and white women turned out to vote in substantially higher numbers than their male counterparts, also boosting Mr. Obama’s victory margin.
There was a startling turnaround two years later. Mr. Obama wasn’t on the 2010 midterm ballot, but his agenda was. Female voters defected from the Democratic Party in historic numbers. Postelection surveys found female voters preferred Republican congressional candidates over Democrats, 49 percent to 48 percent - the first time in at least 30 years that Republican candidates received a majority of women’s votes.
“The explanation for that is really economic,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, new chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “Women make so many of the economic decisions in households. And so the struggle economically is really borne by women, especially women who are heads of their own households.”
Some Democrats say a midterm shellacking is typical for the incumbent president’s party and note that Mr. Obama also lost ground with other key voting groups, including seniors and independents.
But Republicans say the reason for the defections go beyond the recession and that women in particular are reacting to Mr. Obama’s overall agenda.
“There is a solid reason why women moved away from the Democratic Party in 2010,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican. “They want their problems solved. What happened with Obamacare was not health care reform. Females saw that as complicating the issue. They completely disagreed with the course of action.”
The latest Gallup daily tracking poll found Mr. Obama with a 50 percent job approval rating among women, up from a low of 43 percent in April. But a poll taken before the midterm elections by Kellyanne Conway for the Kitchen Cabinet, a conservative womens group, showed what could be lingering problems for the president. A majority of independent women viewed the health care law and Mr. Obama’s signature $821 billion economic stimulus plan as failures.
Said freshman Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican: “More and more, women are the decision makers in their households. They set the budgets, buy the groceries, take the kids to the doctor. And they’ve been seeing not only their budgets but their choices limited because Washington is deciding for them.
“From the health care takeover to our out-of-control debt, Washington has imposed a future for them and their children that quite frankly they don’t like, and I don’t like either. The government is spending more, but the outlook for all of us is getting worse, and so I believe women are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ “
In recent warm-up events for the 2012 race, Mr. Obama has seemed eager to repair whatever damage has been done. He lavishes praise on Ms. Wasserman Schultz, a mother of three school-age children and the first woman selected by a sitting president to chair either party, calling her “tireless.”
“I don’t know how she keeps up with everything,” Mr. Obama said at a fundraiser in Washington. “But as [wife] Michelle [Obama] said, ‘If you want something done, put a woman in charge.’ “
The president also has joked that he and dog Bo are the only guys at the family dinner table each evening, and he reminds audiences that he won’t allow congressional Republicans to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.
Ms. Wasserman Schultz said the campaign’s outreach for women in 2012 will be aggressive.
“The fieldwork, the mobilization of women, the active involvement of women is going to be unprecedented,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Obama re-election campaign in Chicago said the president’s policies have consistently benefited women.
“Whether it is promoting work-family balance, equal pay for equal work, or the Affordable Care Act guaranteeing women security in their health coverage, it is clear the president has put women’s issues at the forefront of his agenda,” spokeswoman Katie Hogan said.
Others point out that the president has appointed two women to the Supreme Court and created the White House Council on Women and Girls to coordinate and advance women’s issues.
Democrats argue that women will come back to their party when they examine the GOP agenda more closely.
“The voters have gotten a glimpse of what total Republican control would look like, an extreme social agenda that was nothing short of an assault on women, trying to redefine rape and deny women the opportunity to make their own reproductive choices,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz said. “Their record is a war on women and it’s a priority for them.”
Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, Pennsylvania Democrat and chief recruiter for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said GOP budget cuts and plans to overhaul the Medicare health care system for seniors are “galvanizing women of all ages.”
Republicans counter that a majority of Americans favor defunding Planned Parenthood, whose services include abortion, and that female voters are being turned off by the Democrats’ policies of higher taxes, more regulation and interference in local education issues.
“Women business owners want a healthy free-enterprise sector,” Mrs. Blackburn said. “Democrats have given them hyperactive regulating agencies that stifle business.”
Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis, Wyoming Republican, said years of studying voters’ habits in the Wyoming Legislature and in Washington have convinced her that female voters take a longer-range view than men.
“The candidate who will succeed with women in 2012 will be the candidate who appeals to the future of our country and economic stability,” she said. “It has less to do with political party than with the vision they paint.”
In 2008, she said, Mr. Obama “painted a picture that women felt looked beyond the immediate horizon.”