WASHINGTON -- Women voters played a strong role in securing President Barack Obama's victory in 2008, and new polling shows that the gender gap between Obama and the GOP candidates is even wider going into the 2012 elections.
According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, Obama is leading Mitt Romney by 20 points (58 to 38 percent) and Rick Santorum by 26 points (61 to 35 percent) among women voters. During the presidential primaries in March 2008, women said they preferred Obama or Hilary Clinton over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by a margin of 14 points (53 to 39 percent).
Among male voters, Obama's lead over Romney is not so clear. The March survey shows Obama leading Romney by a very small margin (49 to 46 percent), while he's favored over Santorum by 11 points.
Women have traditionally favored Democratic presidential candidates, but the new poll shows that more than a quarter (28 percent) of women who identified as conservative said they preferred Obama in a match-up with Romney. The widening gender gap, according to Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, has a lot to do with the GOP candidates' support of anti-contraception legislation, Santorum calling birth control "not okay," and Romney's failure to adequately condemn Rush Limbaugh's comments toward a young woman who advocated for contraception coverage.
Obama and his team, by contrast, have been making a big push over the past week to promote the benefits of Obamacare and the contraception-coverage rule for women.
"The real reason for the gap is that Santorum has been so offensive towards women, as has Mitt Romney," she said. "People are appalled. On the other hand, the president has touted and specifically cited his accomplishments for women, indicating he knows women have specific issues that matter to them."
Santorum's and Romney's campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to contraception and health care issues, economic issues factored into to women's preference of Obama. The lower a woman's income is, the more likely she is to favor Obama. Sixty-three percent of women who make less than $30,000 a year prefer Obama to Romney, compared to 56 percent of women earning more than $75,000. Men in the wealthier bracket preferred Romney by an eight-point margin.
Part of women's economic concerns, O'Neill pointed out, has to do with Romney's support for the Paul Ryan budget, which slashes programs like Medicaid that disproportionately benefit women. Women are more likely than men to live and work in nursing homes, many of which could be shut down by the new budget cuts.
Also, women are less likely to have financial safety nets in old age than men because of the gender wage gap. Women are still earning 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, which is another issue of concern in November.
"As we get closer to the election, what women will be looking for is for both candidates to proactively talk to women about the issues that matter most to them," O'Neill said. "Women's jobs, women's pay, and women's reproductive health."