Something interesting happened in the 2010 midterms: the gender gap, the term used to describe the propensity of women voters to give the Democrats a larger share of their vote, just about vanished for the first time since it was noticed in the 1980s.

When this happened, I welcomed it on Inkwell, noting that it signaled that women were waking up to the notion that big government programs, rather than helping women, are harmful. At the time, I wrote:

We have long argued at the IWF that dependence on government is bad for everybody. But it has been very frustrating that the gender gap has chugged right along, women wanting Uncle Sam to be not just avuncular but paternalistic-until today.

But another interesting thing has happened on the way to the 2012 presidential election: the gender gap is back with a vengeance, according to a new poll by USA Today and Gallup (here and here) of swing states, where President Obama has opened up a sizeable lead over possible GOP nominee standard bearer. The president owes his primacy to women.

The Washington Post notes:

While that lead is eye-opening in its own right — most people believe that the race between Obama and Romney will be very close — it’s all the more remarkable given that, just a month ago, Romney held a two-point edge in these same 12 states.

And even a cursory look inside the numbers explains why Obama has reclaimed the lead; it’s women. In mid-February, Obama took less than half of the vote from women under 50 years old. Now he wins more than 60 percent of them. (Obama is ahead of Romney among all women by 18 points.)

“Romney certainly didn’t create the gender gap, but the heir apparent will inherit what is no doubt a challenge,” acknowledged Tracey Schmitt, a former spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee. “The general election will provide the campaign an opportunity to address the divide.”

The Post goes on to offer this analysis:

That rapid consolidation of women behind Obama seems directly attributable to the focus in the Republican presidential primary on contraception and other reproductive rights issues during the past six weeks or so.

Okay, here is where the Post goes wrong: the GOP has not focused on contraception, with the exception of Rick Santorum, who looks increasingly unlikely to be the nominee and who has said that, though he would talk about contraception, he would not make it illegal.

The GOP focus has been on the challenge to religious freedom in the HHS contraception mandate, not contraception. But this consolidation of support from swing state women behind the president shows that the Democrats have been successful in making the argument about contraception and a phony “war on women.”

Whoever the GOP nominee is, he has his work cut out for him. This is an election about freedom and the economy, not an imaginary war on women. It may be hard to make these points when the Democrats are willing to say anything to get women to vote for them. But the campaign season is young, and Republicans have plenty of time to get the message back on economics and liberty.

But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who declined to run for president this time, says the GOP has bungled it so far:

Mitch Daniels, who himself considered a run for president this year, said that the debate over women’s rights and contraception was begun by the Obama Administration when it announced that religious-affiliated organizations would have to cover birth control in their insurance plans. But, he added in an interview with Reuters, his party had bungled its response.

“Where I wish my teammates had done better and where they mishandled it is … I thought they should have played it as a huge intrusion on freedom,” Daniels told Reuters.