It’s hard to say how many news cycles will involve the jaw-dropping statement by Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin that women’s bodies can block pregnancy in instances of “legitimate” rape. If my twitter feed is an indicator, it might be more than one. What can be said with certainty, though, is that every day spent on this issue is a very bad one for Romney.
The Obama campaign was attempting to focus on women's health and abortion issues, even before the Akin controversy. Earlier this month, Obama campaign aired more advertisements about Romney’s views on Planned Parenthood than any other spot, and the Obama campaign launched an ad attempting to tie Romney to Ryan’s opposition to abortion in instances of rape or incest on Friday. Just yesterday, a friend emailed me an unsolicited picture of an Obama advertisement in a metro station in northern Virginia declaring that Romney was “too extreme” for Virginia because he opposes Roe v. Wade.
It’s not hard to see why the Obama campaign wants this debate. Moderate to liberal social views prevail in many affluent and well-educated metropolitan areas like Denver and northern Virginia, where a strong performance among moderate women can make the difference for Obama, as they did for Bennett two years ago. But more generally, meaningful gains among any group could be sufficient to put Obama over the top, given his proximity to 49 percent of the vote. Undecided voters are disproportionately women, and there’s no question that an overwhelming majority of voters, let alone women, support permitting abortion in instances of rape or incest. And recent polls were beginning to show signs that Obama was making additional inroads among white working class women who, presumably, were increasingly skeptical of Romney after attacks on Bain Capital and his tax returns.
So the Obama campaign was spending millions attempting to elevate abortion and women’s health issues in the minds of socially moderate voters even before yesterday’s controversy, which is all but assured to make Romney’s problem even worse. For voters who have already seen Obama’s advertisements, Akin’s comments could be a crystallizing moment that clarifies GOP’s position on social issues. Democrats will surely assert that the Akin statement reflects a broader GOP trend on women’s health issues and while Romney tried to distance himself by disagreeing with Akin’s remarks, the Obama campaign is unlikely to allow this type of media frenzy to pass without taking an opportunity to discuss Planned Parenthood or contraceptives. Just for good measure, Akin raises the exact question of Ryan’s opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest, which the Obama campaign was already emphasizing. And Ryan’s bill to “redefine rape” is sure to receive additional attention, especially since it plausibly qualifies Romney’s support for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Even if Romney can distance himself, any damage to the Republican brand would still have adverse consequences for the top of the ticket.
So one week before the convention, Romney has been saddled with another cultural controversy that risks highlighting issues that the Obama camp thinks could yield gains among socially moderate voters critical to his chances in Colorado and Virginia. The Obama campaign was already spending millions trying to elevate this question in swing states, and the last thing Boston needs is incendiary remarks adding fuel to the fire.