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Romney loses gamble on female voters’ focus

The biggest reason Mitt Romney lost women, and thus the White House? A surprising number of the Romney-supporting women I talked to did so in the hope that he had not been telling them the whole truth.

“He had to swing more to the right to win the nomination,” explained George Mason student Margaret Berkowitz, a first-time voter in McLean, Va., “and we understand that. They’re not going to overturn Roe,” she said, adding that “you just ignore those ads” that claim otherwise.

Gail Ulven, a 27-year-old pro-choice therapist who lives in Fairfax, Va., voted for Romney on the economy but didn’t believe for a second that Roe is on the table, either. Neither did Kathleen Prokay, a retired adjunct college professor in Charlotte, N.C.. “Not that it doesn’t bother me,” Prokay said of her candidate’s stated abortion views, “but sometimes you just have to make choices and compromises.”

President Obama won women in virtually every swing state, besting Romney with female voters 51 to 48 in Florida, 55 to 44 in New Hampshire, 52 to 47 in North Carolina, 53 to 46 in Virginia and 57 to 43 in Iowa, while gender-based gaffes from Missouri Republican Todd Akin and Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock lost those senatorial seats for their party.

Both candidates are branded as inveterate fibbers by their adversaries, of course: Cindy Beley, a 56-year-old advertising saleswoman in Conifer, Colo., thinks “Obama used scare tactics to try and make women think Romney would take away their reproductive rights. A president doesn’t have the power to do that.”

Yet only Romney’s supporters inferred that they trust him to govern because they don’t believe what he’s been telling them as a candidate.

Team Obama mostly targeted women voters with appeals on abortion rights, while Team Romney seemed to see us as either small-business owners or aspiring small-business owners. His decision to appeal to women on the economy was correct – and also the only way he could go, given that he couldn’t very well tout his murky views on equal pay. But the specifics of his plan didn’t close the deal.

Maybe Obama was always going to win women, who favor Democrats and show up at the polls.

But even Obama supporters expressed some unhappiness with the way he pitched them: “I found the advertising just appalling – all of it,” said Maris Newbold, an Obama-supporting consultant in McLean, Va..

Many women said they were glad they’d picked a president early, and so didn’t have to focus on every late-breaking brickbat thrown. “I’m not one of those undecided voters,” said Faith Dreher, a Romney-voting grandmother of eight. And most cited the economy as their leading concern – no matter which guy they were backing.

If this election had really been all about women, we’d have talked a lot more about child care and elder care. And education.

But although the pandering wasn’t what it might have been from either side, you can’t win by hoping your own folks know you were winking when you made some of those promises.

Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer.