If Mitt Romney wanted to get women voters talking about him, Tuesday’s debate helped him to achieve his aim – though probably not in the way that he had hoped.
Seizing on his account of how, as the newly-elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he sought help in collating “binders full of women” for perusal as he sifted through an otherwise male-dominated list of candidates for his state cabinet, Democrats have given the phrase a life of its own, saying that it is illustrative of his “condescending” view of female voters.
Mr Romney’s critics unleashed parodies including a Facebook page entitled Binders Full of Women – whose following last night was edging towards 300,000 “likes” – and streams of Twitter jokes. “Binders full of women? Oh sure, I’ve got hundreds of them,” reads the caption on a photo of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner doing the rounds on the internet.
The phrase has become such a talking point that it became the third fastest-trending search term on Google during the debate and Barack Obama’s campaign team paid for a web advert that pops up when Twitter users search the term.
Mr Romney introduced the phrase during an answer to an audience member’s question about inequalities in the workplace, which pointed out that women earn only 72 per cent of their male counterparts’ pay. Recalling how he was faced with only male applicants when it came to picking his cabinet team in Massachusetts, Mr Romney revealed: “And I said ‘Well gosh… can’t we find some women that are also qualified. So we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups … and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The resulting backlash over his perceived slight eclipsed talk of other women’s electoral issues such as abortion and contraception.
“Last night’s debate highlighted who is fighting for women in America: while the president talked about women as breadwinners, Mitt Romney talked about them as resumes in a binder,” the Obama campaign complained.
Mr Romney had gained ground on Obama among women, particularly among married women.
Mr Obama devoted much of the second debate toward shoring up their support.He mentioned the women’s health organisation Planned Parenthood five times. He stressed that Mr Romney had promised to cease funding the organisation, which provides contraception and abortions, but also basic services such as cancer screenings.
Mr Romney hit back by saying he would help women by improving the sputtering economy. But the Republican offered fewer specifics on women’s issues than Mr Obama and at times seemed to stumble. “Any ground that Mitt Romney gained over the last week or week and a half, he lost tonight,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
“Obama was incredibly strong on appealing to women and casting doubt on Romney’s statements.”