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GOP has work cut out for it to bridge gender gap

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
April 2, 2012 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Among women, Obama holds 18-point lead over Mitt Romney in battleground states
  • President has a 15-point advantage among women over Rick Santorum
  • Controversy over birth control coverage, focus on social issues could be behind gap
  • Top Republicans say gap will disappear once divisive GOP primary ends

Washington (CNN) -- Even Mitt Romney admits that he's got his work cut out for him to reach out to female voters as he transitions from the Republican presidential nomination battle to what will most likely be his general election matchup against President Barack Obama.

"We have work, we have work to do, to make sure we take our message to the women of America, so they understand how we're going to get good jobs and we're going to have a bright economic future for them and for their kids, and make sure that these distortions that the Democrats throw in are clarified and the truth is heard," Romney said Sunday in Middleton, Wisconsin.

As of now, when it comes to female voters, the numbers don't add up very well for the former Massachusetts governor or for the GOP.

A USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 possible battleground states (which will be contested in November) indicates that the president holds a 9-point lead over Romney, 51%-42%.

Break the numbers down to genders, and it's basically all tied up among men, but among women, Obama holds an 18-point lead, 54%-36%. According to the survey, released Sunday, the president has a slightly smaller but still large 15-point advantage among women over former Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney's main rival for the GOP nomination.

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Other polls also point to a gender gap: A CNN/ORC International survey released last week indicated Obama leading Romney nationwide among registered voters by 11 points, 54%-43%, up from a 5-point advantage in February. Among women, the president's lead grows to a 60%-37% margin.

And according to the poll, Romney had a negative 34%-48% favorable rating among female voters, while Obama enjoyed a positive 58%-41% favorable rating among women.

The CNN poll also indicated that it wasn't just the candidates affected by the gender gap.

Women had a positive view of the Democratic Party by a 54%-40% margin while they held a negative view of the Republican Party by a 59%-34% margin.

Are female voters turning away from the GOP?

From the controversy over the birth-control exemption from health care coverage to Rush Limbaugh's controversial comments about a Georgetown University student who testified to Congress about the contraception exemption, it appears the Republican Party -- and the Romney campaign -- has a harder sell to make to women.

"Try as Romney has to stay out of some the Republican missteps, some of this has been guilt by association," CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley said. "His fellow Republicans, including Santorum, have said and done some things that have turned off female voters.

"But Democrats have also milked the issue. The so-called war on women has resonance, and the Democrats appear to be winning the spin war. Their accusations that Republican are declaring a war on women has clearly seeped into the political groundwater and has hurt Romney," added Crowley, anchor of CNN's "State of the Union."

Top Democrats argue that what they call Romney's run to the right to try to appeal to conservatives in the GOP primaries and caucuses, including the candidate's pledge to curtail government funding towards Planned Parenthood, is hurting him with women, and they've worked hard the past few months to leverage the gap. But the Romney campaign and other top Republicans say the gap will disappear once the divisive GOP primary battle ends.

Romney's wife, Ann, has become more prominent on the campaign trail the past couple of months. On Sunday in Wisconsin, the candidate touted that Ann is "going across the country and talking with women, and what they're talking about is the debt that we're leaving the next generation and the failure of this economy to put people back to work."

The gender gap is not new.

"Pollsters first noticed the gender gap in the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, and it has been a constant in American politics since then," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. "In presidential elections, the percent of women voting for the Democrat has usually been 7 to 9 points higher than the percent of men voting for the Democrat. In 2008, for example, 49% of men voted for Barack Obama compared to 56% of women."

"In terms of elections," Crowley said, "Republicans have been south of the Democrats when it comes to the women's vote for quite some time. If you look at George Bush in 2000 and 2004, he was down among women, but he made up for it by winning the male vote. So Republicans have to overperform with men to make up for the female gap. But if you are down by 15 to 20% among women, it's hard to overcome."

All the more reason you'll probably see plenty of Ann Romney, and first lady Michelle Obama, on the campaign trail this summer and fall.

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