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You heard it here first: If you want to get close to an accurate prediction for a winner in Ohio’s Republican primary on Super Tuesday, then ignore commentary that downplays or omits to mention the importance of the women’s vote. The reasons below only begin to tell the story.
1. Margin and Momentum
Exit polls from last week’s Republican primary in Michigan show that women favored Mitt Romney. This gender victory defied a pre-primary narrative that detected a shift toward Rick Santorum. One analysis even credited Santorum’s Michigan loss to the female voter deficit. At least one Ohio newspaper predicted, before the Michigan primary, that its results would affect Ohio’s contest. But such speculation only adds to the seriousness with which the women’s vote must be regarded. At least two recent polls show the race is tied, a tightening similar to pre-primary day Michigan numbers. There is every reason to believe that the women’s vote could play the exact same role in Ohio as it played in Michigan – one that can give Romney an edge if they show up, or Santorum an edge if they don’t.
2. Women Voters Won't Forget the "Anti-Woman" Narrative
Rush Limbaugh’s three-day on-air tirade against Sandra Fluke, a third-year Georgetown law student who supports health insurance coverage for contraception, obliterated the floundering conservative message that denying women certain benefits through their employers is not about women. No one would argue that religious liberties and women’s rights, just like free speech and homeland security, don’t constantly tussle for supremacy. But already this year it's been suggested that religion stepped up to keep a woman down: Michele Bachmann. The deployment of a religious liberty argument that results in denying women opportunities gained over decades has failed to be a winning tactic.
On the upside, Rush helped distract Ohioans from a Romney women-related gaffe committed during an interview with Ohio News Network's Jim Heath. In it, Romney said he doesn’t support the Blunt amendment, a now-failed move in the U.S. Senate to let employers deny coverage for any health care benefit due to personal moral objections. Romney about-faced in less than 60 minutes. But the sound bites? They last forever.
3. Enthusiasm Gap
Two years ago, an enthusiasm gap with Democratic women drew attention as it began to look like Republicans would sweep into office, and then did. The same stupor may be victimizing conservative voters this year. The evidence includes less than robust primary turnout in general this year, high proportions of undecided voters and voters who say they may still change their mind, and battered and fragmented Ohio Republican politicians. Specifically, Ohio voters rebuked Governor John Kasich in November 2011 for his anti-union agenda, his supporters are openly battling for party control with the Ohio Republican Party’s current chair, Kevin DeWine, and his cousin, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, became a flip-flopping Romney-turned-Santorum surrogate. In the absence of a clear, single message, conservative voters may just stay home.
4. The PUMA Phenomenon
In 2008, a political action committee called People United Mean Action, or PUMA, was formed to oppose Barack Obama’s nomination for president, after Hillary Clinton withdrew from the Democratic primary race. Though sometimes the 2008 PUMA movement was criticized as an insincere collection of bogus angry Hillary Clinton supporters, Ohioan Cynthia Ruccia, voiced the sentiment that women voters got the shaft when Clinton conceded the primary that June. In addition to making cable show appearances, Ruccia helped create The New Agenda, a women’s advocacy group, which in turn named PUMA as one of several founding groups. Four years later, the overall decline in women in elected office, and Ohio redistricting’s pitting of male incumbents against Democratic female incumbents in the new 9th and 16th districts, ensure the continuation of such groups’ concerns.
One thing is for sure -- we know from past elections that what happens in Ohio in national elections is indicative of the direction the political winds will be blowing in November. What women think and how they vote are always important in any election, but women voters in Ohio give a special insight to how things might play out in November.
Jill Miller Zimon is Project Director for the Civic Commons EfficientGovNetwork. She's also a city council member in Pepper Pike, Ohio, a Contributing Editor at BlogHer.com and has blogged at Writes Like She Talks since 2005. Follow her on Twitter here!