Mitt Romney’s claim to have ordered up “binders full of women” to staff his Massachusetts cabinet has opened a fresh struggle with President Barack Obama for the backing of female voters, threatening to erode the Republican nominee’s gains with a crucial constituency.
Romney’s comment at the second presidential debate Oct. 16 in Hempstead, New York, sparked Internet ridicule, Democratic derision and a day of damage control by the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign.
“I understand the challenges women face and want to make it easier for them in the workplace,” Romney wrote in a posting yesterday on the social media site Twitter. His campaign circulated an e-mail from former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey that said: “When Mitt Romney talks about women, when he says he believes that we can do any job a man can do, I know from experience that he’s speaking from the heart.”
On the campaign trail, the candidates courted women with differing messages. Romney said he could resolve their economic challenges and Obama argued he is the one who values their concerns and contributions.
“I want my daughters paid just like somebody else’s sons are paid for the same job,” Obama said at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. “We don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women.”
Romney said the president “has failed America’s women.” At a community college in Chesapeake, Virginia, he said they want assurances about the future of the economy, “and the answers are coming from us, and not Barack Obama.”
The candidates’ back and forth in battleground states underscored the stakes for both men on winning over women. Polls suggested Romney had been closing the gap with Obama among women voters after the two met in their first debate on Oct. 3.
A USA Today/Gallup poll of all likely voters released Oct. 15 for 12 politically competitive states showed Romney holding a four-percentage-point lead over Obama, 50 percent to 46 percent.
The challenger improved his standing with women, who backed the president by just one percentage point more than him. That compares with a nine-point edge Obama had over Romney with women in the rest of the country in the poll, more in line with the so-called “gender gap” that has worked to the advantage of Democratic presidential candidates for decades.
Romney is seeking to soften his image with women. His campaign is airing a new television ad to discredit Obama’s claim that he takes hardline positions on social issues.
“You know, those ads saying Mitt Romney would ban all abortions and contraception seemed a bit extreme, so I looked into it,” a woman says in the ad. “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.”
Obama had a 13-point edge among women voters in the 2008 election over Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee then, according to exit polls.
As the candidates and their campaigns sparred yesterday over the significance of Romney’s “binders” remark, he faced questions on whether he had exaggerated his role in recruiting women for his cabinet during his 2003-2007 gubernatorial tenure.
The Boston-based non-partisan coalition of women’s groups MassGAP said in a statement that it spearheaded the process before Romney’s election and later compiled a roster of female applicants and “presented this information to the administration for follow-up interviews and consideration for appointment.”
That is at odds with Romney’s recounting of events at the debate: that, after his staff gave him an all-male list of potential appointees, he turned to women’s groups to find him suitable female candidates, saying: “Well, gosh, can’t we -- can’t we find some -- some women that are also qualified?”
At his request, Romney said, “they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Healey, who was his point person for vetting potential female appointees, in an interview validated MassGAP’s account while saying Romney still deserves the credit he claimed.
The coalition of women’s groups “had certainly decided to do that process” before Romney requested any names, Healey said. “Whether or not a governor decides to reach out and make use of that information and make use of that resource is a different matter,” she said. Romney “fulfilled his promise” to the group before his election to increase women’s representation in his administration’s senior ranks, Healey said.
Embellished or not, Romney’s phrasing of his claim may have complicated his efforts to humanize himself for undecided voters, particularly women.
“Last night, the president talked about women as breadwinners,” said a message posted on Obama’s Twitter social media account yesterday. “Romney talked about them as resumes in ‘binders.’”
Republicans defended their candidate in a party-organized conference call and coined a new phrase -- “empty binder” --to criticize Obama’s agenda. They argued that Romney’s remark was being blown out of proportion at a time when women are more concerned about economic opportunity and reducing the federal deficit.
“It’s all a bunch of small ball because he can’t win on the big issues,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said of Obama.
Romney’s remark came in response to a voter’s question during the town hall-style debate on how to address pay inequity for women. Romney instead discussed his efforts in Massachusetts to recruit and hire qualified women and his willingness to provide women on his staff flexibility in their work schedules so they could get home to care for their children.
“We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women,” he said.
The answer drew criticism from some women’s advocacy groups, who said it showed Romney isn’t concerned with gender equality in the workplace. “Mitt Romney’s mind,” said Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, “immediately went to ensuring that women in the workforce are able to get home in time to make dinner.”
Median weekly pay for women working full-time was 82 percent of the median for men in full-time jobs in 2011: $684 for women to $832 for men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Women are under-represented in senior positions within the leveraged buyout industry in which Romney made his fortune, accounting for just 8.1 percent of managing directors and senior executives, according to data compiled by Bloomberg last month. That’s in line with the gender breakdown at Bain Capital LLC, the Boston-based firm Romney co-founded and ran until 1999, which counts seven women among its 87 managing directors and senior directors.
MassGAP said Romney had improved the proportion of new appointments of women in Massachusetts, to 42 percent from 30 percent, in his first two years in office, then let it slide to 25 percent by the end of his tenure.
“It was great to have that access,” said MassGAP Co-Chair Amy Burke, who called Healey “phenomenal.”
“It’s disappointing that halfway through a term, you don’t keep up that important work,” Burke added.
Of the 22 cabinet and cabinet-level positions in Obama’s administration, eight of them -- or 36 percent -- are held by women, and almost half of the 468-member White House staff is women, according to a list of employees submitted in a report to Congress this year.
Like a majority of voters, women’s priorities are the economy and jobs over all else during this election year, and may not have reacted to the moment as political analysts in Washington did, said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster with the firm Momentum Analysis. Still, it could harm Romney’s image at a time when he is trying to show a more human side.
“In that exchange, there’s no question that Obama is expressing more empathy with women,” Omero said. “The reason the ‘binders full of women’ moment is so cringe-worthy is it encapsulates Mitt Romney’s struggles in how he relates to women and women’s issues. He literally put women on paper rather than as flesh and blood.”
Obama in the debate suggested that Romney is anti-women, noting that he hadn’t weighed in on a pay equity law the president signed, has promised to eliminate federal funding for the women’s health organization Planned Parenthood, and backed a measure to let employers deny insurance coverage for contraception.
Romney said in April that he has “no intention of changing” the pay-equity measure, though he hasn’t expressly endorsed it. His vice-presidential running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said yesterday on CBS that the measure was “not an equal pay law, it was about limiting --opening up the lawsuits and the statute of limitations” on workplace issues.