Young, white, blue-collar women hold the keys to the White House

If Obama can maintain a lead among young, white women in Ohio, he can win.

Barack Obama speaks in Columbus, Ohio
Candidates are relentlessly wooing these votes - here's Obama in Columbus, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when Christ declares, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” a woman at the back of the crowd says, “I’m glad they’re getting something. They have a hell of a time.” If Barack Obama and Mitt Romney continue to run neck and neck, meek Americans will for once count far more than billionaires in this election. And they will get to decide who runs the US for the next four years.

Let me explain. Going into the straight, Obama and Romney are in the tightest race. If one of them can take a lead of, say, even 3 percentage points by 6 November, there will be an outright winner with a substantial majority. But if the race continues nip and tuck, the election will be decided by a small number of voters in no more than eight marginal states. So, who are the undecided super-voters whose opinions count more than the rest? In previous elections, soccer moms and Nascar dads were deemed to hold the key to the White House. This time, sifting through the entrails of the polls, a picture emerges of a white, single woman, aged 18 to 29, who did not go to college, works in a blue-collar job and thinks herself a Protestant, though she rarely attends church. She lives in Ohio, though there are others just like her in Wisconsin and Iowa.

Advantage blues

Because of a system that tallies electoral college votes per state rather than individual votes, the US has an inbuilt Democratic majority. Groups that tend to vote Democratic, such as African Americans, Hispanics and immigrants, live in populous states that are granted more electoral college votes in a mostly winner-takes-all system. Eight states this time could go either way. If Romney does not win Ohio, which carries 18 electoral college votes, he must emerge victorious in seven of the eight other battleground states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Ohio has voted for the president in 27 of the past 29 elections, including each of the past 12. That’s why in the past seven weeks Obama has held nine events in Ohio, Joe Biden five, Romney 20 and his sidekick Paul Ryan 14. During the week beginning 15 October, Ohio was visited by the Democratic big guns Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom were thought appealing to young Protestant, bluecollar, single working women, while Romney countered with Condoleezza Rice. Over the past month, Obama has blown $26m on TV ads in Ohio on daytime women’s shows such as Judge Judy and Dr Phil; Romney and his surrogates have spent $20m.

Ohio tilts towards Obama. It makes cars and, by bailing out General Motors and Chrysler, an intervention that Romney opposed, Obama is credited with saving 11,000 jobs there. Although Ohio has shed 239,800 jobs since Obama took office, a slow recovery is taking place and unemployment is down 1.6 per cent over the past 12 months.

Young Protestant, blue-collar, working women in Ohio are so important to victory that the two candidates often seem to be talking exclusively to them, irrespective of what questions they are asked. Even in the foreign policy debate on 23 October, both candidates curried favour with women. “[Muslim] countries can’t develop if young women are not given the kind of education that they need,” said Obama, a point that had just been made by Romney.

In the previous debate, the president addressed equal pay, educational opportunity, contraception, abortion and glass ceilings. Romney, meanwhile, is trying to live down remarks by the Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, who spoke of “legitimate rape” and suggested that raped women don’t need an abortion because they abort naturally. In one response of 400 words, Romney said “women” 13 times. “Why is it that there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office?” he asked. But he raised hackles when he recalled the “binders of women” he’d consulted to recruit women to his Massachusetts administration.

The morning after the second presidential debate, the Democratic campaign pollster Geoff Garin held a focus group made up solely of white working women in Ohio without a college degree, and on the stump since then Obama has relentlessly wooed them. Talking of his daughters, he said, “I don’t want them paid less than a man for doing the same job.” In response to Romney’s promise to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, America’s top contraceptive dispenser, Obama cited “millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care. They rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings.”

Double Mitts

In response to the Obama campaign repeatedly playing clips in which Romney declared he would be happy to sign a law outlawing abortion in all circumstances, and that he wanted to remove funding from Planned Parenthood, Romney put out an ad in which an actress says, “Turns out, Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all . . . In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life.” As on so many issues, Romney faces both ways when it comes to women’s rights. Sometimes he is a 1950s fuddy-duddy who thinks wives should keep to the kitchen, at others a pious pro-lifer who agrees with the religious right or a concerned boss wanting to employ more women.

One last thing about the wavering white working women who will decide a tight election: they did not watch the first debate that proved so disastrous for Obama. That may help explain why, since then, ten polls continue to report Obama enjoying an average 9 per cent lead among women. Women are not only more likely to support Obama’s liberal social agenda but in the past have proven more likely than men to re-elect the incumbent, of either party. Despite the surge in Romney support unleashed by the president failing to defend himself in the first debate, if Obama can maintain a clear advantage among young white women in Ohio, he can still win.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defines Modern Economics” is published in paperback by W W Norton (£12.99).