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2012 Presidential Debate Recap: Mitt Romney "Wins", Women Lose


Often sidelined as shorthand for reproductive rights, so-called "women's issues" were nowhere in evidence at the first debate of the 2012 election – the only one slated to cover domestic issues. But the full list of issues that affect women in profound ways runs through every tributary of American life. Women, after all, make up, half of the electorate. 

So, naturally, there was bound to be plenty of discussion of issues that directly affect them at Wednesday's debate between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney, right? 


Writing in the Nation, Bryce Covert laments:  "Given all the unfettered candidate talking points and potpourri of disconnected issues, you’d think someone would have uttered the word 'women.' But, alas, it went unsaid. In an election cycle where women’s hearts and votes are being fiercely battled over while our rights and needs are getting hammered by Republican vote after Republican vote, you’d think we might come up once. Nope." 

Why was this? It's not as if there has been any shortage of hot button and highly polarizing headlines in recent months. The Republican platform alone should have made the issues that women care about most a focus of the debate, if not the entire election. From proposed personhood amendments to Rep Todd Akin's profoundly tone-deaf remarks on rape to Rush Limbaugh's slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke, there has been plenty of fodder for each candidate to draw sharp distinctions against his opponent. 

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For the record, the president supports access to abortion. The Affordable Health Care Act he engineered requires contraceptives to be available for free for women enrolled in workplace health plans.

Romney, for his part, favors limits on abortion, though he famously has previously supported access to it. A Romney presidency would likely seek to overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing individual states to move to ban abortion. Romney has also said that funding for Planned Parenthood is among the cuts he wants to make in the federal budget. 

You wouldn't know any of this if you had tuned in to the debate, though. 

"It seems that everyone participating in last night’s debate, including debate moderator Jim Lehrer, forgot that women have the right to vote," Zerlina Maxwell blogged for the New York Daily News. Of course, that didn't stop most of the media punditry from unanimously declaring Romney the winner of last night's debate for looking good and coming on strong. 

To be completely fair, issues that affect women weren't completely in absentia. Obama evoked his grandmother, who lived a fiercely independent life until the end, with the help of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – both invaluable to women, who tend to live longer. Romney pledged to overturn Obama's Affordable Care Act, which covers contraception as a preventative care.  

Both candidates have have repeatedly claimed to be pro-teacher – the majority of whom are female. Where Obama outlines a plan to hire 100,000 new educators, Romney has said only that we need fewer government employees, which ultimately translates into fewer public elementary school teachers. 

But none of the dots were explicitly connected to how the issues affect women. 

And it's not as if voters don't care. Jobs and balancing the budget are the top issues for voters in Colorado, where the debate was held. But voters in swing suburban counties outside Denver have told reporters repeatedly that so-called "social issues" matter too. 

“The biggest issue, and no one will admit it, is women's rights on abortion,” George Cohan, a 69 year-old independent voter from Centennial, told New York's WNYC public radio

Laid off and forced into retirement when he lost his job as a manufacturing engineer, Cohan is a victim of the economic downturn. But still, he told reporters his biggest concern this election year is abortion.

“It was the issue that was the biggest thing in 2008, the Republicans didn't get the message, and it's the biggest thing this year too."

He's not alone. According to a recent Denver Post poll, half of Colorado voters say abortion should be legal. Two-thirds of voters who say abortion should be legal are voting for Obama, but almost a quarter are voting for Romney. A full 10 percent of Colorado voters say abortion should be illegal in all cases, and they’re overwhelmingly backing Romney.

The next presidential debate is slated to cover foreign policy, so it is entirely possible that many of these issues will go undebated by both candidates. One of them will still win. But either way, half of the country loses.