Soccer moms will be crucial for Romney

In the rush to oversimplify and dramatize the GOP’s alleged war on women, many have missed a crucial point: Mitt Romney doesn’t have a problem with women.

He has a problem with single women, and even that might not be so damaging.

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A CBS/New York Times poll last week found that Romney actually led among married women, 49 percent to 42. That wasn’t enough, however, to overcome President Obama’s huge 28 percent lead with single women, which he parlayed into a 6 percent edge with women, overall.

And a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey last week confirmed the phenomenon. Romney led among married women, 49 percent to 46, but Obama used a 36 percent trouncing with single women to carry him to a 12 percent advantage with women, overall.

Now there are two ways Romney can approach these numbers — he could target married women and try to boost his lead there, or he could try to cut into his huge deficit with single women.

The question is whether he can do both, and theory would suggest it’s tough. Married women are dramatically more conservative than their single counterparts, and it would be hard to please one group without displeasing the other.

So which path should he choose? As callous as it sounds, Romney probably doesn’t need to worry too much about his huge deficit with single women.

First, to win this more liberal demographic, he’d have to make dramatic shifts in ideology that would threaten his standing with conservatives, and second, there’s no evidence that he even needs to perform better with single women to win the election.

To wit: in 2004, George W. Bush won the presidential election while losing single women by 29 percent, which is roughly where Romney stands right now. But Bush won by 15 percent among married women. That’s fertile territory for Romney and picking up an extra 6 percent with a more ideologically-friendly demographic like that would be far easier than an abrupt turn to the left for single women.

Exit polls from the 2008 presidential election offer further support for this idea.

The fiercest battle in the gender wars came among married women with kids, also known as, you guessed it, soccer moms. While women were voting for Obama, overall, by 13 percent, married women with kids gave him only a slight 4 percent edge. This subelectorate was the “swing county” of the gender wars.

The big question is whether Romney can flip this demographic in much the same way he’ll have to flip key swing counties that voted for Obama in 2008, and there will probably be plenty of strategizing in the Romney war room about ways to do this.

One possible start lies in picking a female vice-presidential candidate. Some critics have charged that Sarah Palin’s failure to win women is proof that gender doesn’t matter in vice-presidential picks, but that misses a crucial point.

The problem isn’t that then-GOP nominee John McCain picked a woman, it’s that he picked the wrong one to win soccer moms.

Throughout the course of her national life, Palin has consistently been more popular with men than women, and not just because men tend to be more Republican. She also does worse with Republican women than Republican men.

It’s not hard to see why. Palin hunts, shoots guns, drops rhetorical bombs, and can be famously caustic. That kind of profile is probably a bit more attractive to men than to soccer moms aren’t known to pack guns at soccer practice and swear (at least publicly) at other people’s kids. In fact, take it from Palin herself, who described herself  — not as a soccer mom — but as the more pugilistic “hockey mom.”

Thankfully for Romney, he has more than Palin to choose from this time, and there are two women, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who particularly stand out to early oddsmakers. The big question is whether they’ll stand out to soccer moms.

KELLY AYOTTE

At first, second, and third glances, the Catholic Ayotte could help Romney significantly with soccer moms. She’s from a Northeastern state, has a degree from Villanova Law, argued a case before the Supreme Court, and eventually became the state’s Attorney General before running for Senate and winning in 2010. That’s a stellar pedigree.

Further, she’s conservative but not caustic; she’s pro-gun without the gloating, glorying and machismo of Palin, and she wrote a child predator act that made it into law. Make no mistake Ayotte is a deep conservative, but soccer moms are no more liberal than they are conservative and shouldn’t be confused for much more liberal single women. After all, Obama scored much better with the nation at-large, than he did with soccer moms.

NIKKI HALEY

On paper, Haley should be a solid fit with soccer moms. At 40 years old, she’s the youngest governor in the nation, she had a successful career as a businesswoman before becoming governor, and — like Ayotte — she has two children and a husband in the military. But she’s also saddled with some potential baggage that could turn soccer moms off.

During her 2010 campaign, she was accused of infidelity in her marriage. It was never proven but, nevertheless, became a big campaign issue. In fact, type “Nikki Haley” into Google, and the search engine immediately recommends “nikki haley affairs.” That’s not to pass moral judgment; it’s just the unfortunate consequence of a nasty campaign.

She’s also currently caught in some more nastiness over her memoir, which some Republican and Democratic legislators have bitterly disputed. Not surprisingly, they’re legislators who’ve clashed with Haley, but once again, it’s left a mark. A December poll showed that just 35 percent of South Carolinians approved of the job she was doing as governor.

— This column was updated at 11:50 a.m.