WASHINGTON — Women’s rights have soared into the political spotlight in these days before Republicans meet in Tampa, Fla., for their convention, and Democrats think they have a strong issue that’ll show their opponents are unusually insensitive to women, they say.
Experts contend that the economy will matter most. But in the meantime, the furor rages, and in a close election, it could trigger enough anger to make some difference.
The uproar began over the weekend, when Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin said, "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Akin later said he’d misspoken, and he apologized. Despite pleas from Republican leaders, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the congressman refused to leave the race.
By coincidence, the Republican platform committee met Tuesday in Tampa and adopted tough anti-abortion language.
While it was nearly identical to the language agreed to in 2004 and 2008, Democrats used the vote to highlight what they called the party’s callous, even hostile, attitude toward women. They called it the "Akin amendment," even though he had nothing to do with it. They recalled how, earlier this year, conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh insulted law student Sandra Fluke for her advocacy of mandatory insurance coverage for birth control without co-payments.
Republicans were not pleased. The days before a political convention are supposed be a time for the party’s candidates to coast into the host city on a wave of fresh momentum. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have been traveling the country trying to drum up enthusiasm, but instead are being met by a barrage of news accounts of the controversy.
In the end, independent analysts think the issue will hardly be dominant.
"The election’s going to be about the economy and jobs," said Brad Coker, the managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which surveys voters around the country.
But women’s rights do have the potential to fire up the Democratic base, and in a campaign that’s seen a virtual tie between President Barack Obama and Romney for weeks, mobilizing all kinds of loyal groups, or bases, and getting them to turn out in big numbers is seen as crucial.
Obama’s June directive allowing many younger undocumented workers to remain in this country helped give him a huge boost in polls of Hispanic voters. Romney’s strong support for Israel during a visit to Jerusalem last month was seen as a way of engaging Jewish voters. And Democrats’ fervent championing of abortion rights and other reproductive rights could mobilize women loyal to the party.
Republicans concede that they have an image problem with many women, but they say it can be overcome or at least neutralized.
"The fact is that the bases of both parties are fired up," Republican consultant Curt Anderson said.
Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said the abortion/reproductive rights issues would matter, but that “economic issues will be front and center.” The Pew Research Center, which has studied the political gender gap for years, found in April that 86 percent of voters said the economy was the issue most important to their votes, followed by jobs at 84 percent. Abortion ranked 16th, at 39 percent, followed by birth control, 34 percent.
"These issues are overshadowed by the economy and jobs by most voters," said Carroll Doherty, Pew associate director.
The reason women often vote differently from men is rooted in economic issues.
Pew found that women’s views of abortion were virtually the same as men’s. Another spring survey found that 40 percent of women said abortion should be illegal all or most of the time, compared with 43 percent of men. And 55 percent said it should be legal all or most of the time, compared with 51 percent of men.
But women, Pew found, are more likely to favor a bigger government that provides more services and does more for the elderly, the poor and children.
The gender gap has been clear in presidential elections since at least 1980, but its effect on the eventual outcome of elections remains a subject of debate.
Republicans took a sharply conservative turn that year, and their platform abandoned the party’s historic support of the Equal Rights Amendment and included strong anti-abortion language.
Democrats thought they had a huge opening then, particularly since, unlike in 2012, women’s rights issues triggered a fierce fight between the still-sizable corps of Republican moderates and the newly powerful conservatives. Nearly 12,000 ERA supporters marched in Detroit, the site of the Republican convention.
But exit polling on Election Day found that Republican Ronald Reagan, a staunch ERA foe, had split the women’s vote with Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan coasted to victory, as he won the men’s vote by 17 percentage points.
Experts see a potential difference in how women’s votes could be affected this year. Abortion and other reproductive rights issues have a megaphone they haven’t had in years, and Democrats are going to keep it loud and constant.
They released a list of speakers for their convention next month that’s a who’s who of folks who lived that narrative: Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund; Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America; Lilly Ledbetter, whose experience led to the passage of an equal pay law, and Fluke.
But history, polling and independent studies have found repeatedly that women care most about the economy.
Walsh noted that women not only are usually the managers of a household’s finances, but also tend to be more vulnerable to economic swings. They’re disproportionately in lower-paying jobs, and they tend to live longer, meaning they depend more on federal support programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
“The kitchen table issues really matter,” Walsh said.