By Sarah McHaneyReprint

WASHINGTON, Nov 2 2012 (IPS) – A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama was seen as certain to collect the majority of women’s votes in the Nov. 6 presidential election. Four days before the election, however, the women’s vote is thought to be divided equally between Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

poll released last week by the Associated Press-GfK found women are split right down the middle, with each candidate receiving 47 percent of the vote. These numbers mirror the tightness of the popular vote overall and are a significant turnaround from a month ago, when the same poll showed Obama with a 16-point lead among women voters.

“Presidential races always tighten towards the end as local trends come to the national level – this is not a surprise,” Judy Lloyd, executive editor of and an appointee for former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, told IPS.

Even so, Obama does appear to have suffered a dramatic loss in his lead with women voters. According to many analysts, the shift could be due to women focusing on the economy rather than on the “women’s issues” for which Obama has been fighting, such as equal pay in the workplace or funding for family planning.

The fight for the women vote has grown more heated as each candidate vies for women’s attention by criticising his opponent’s policies.

“The Obama campaign has engaged in a despicable game of gender politics and fear-mongering this election in an effort to shore up a critical Democratic constituency – single women.” Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of Independent Women’s Forum, a group with “a mission to expand the conservative coalition”, told IPS. “But it’s clear the War on Women rhetoric has failed.”

Such rhetoric refers to the Obama campaign’s claim that Republican policies run counter to women on issues that are critical to them.

According to the AP-GfK poll, Obama’s rhetoric may not be bringing him female votes, but he is still seen as the better candidate for women’s issues. Of likely voters polled, 53 percent think Obama is making the right decisions on issues directly affecting women, compared to 40 percent who think Romney is doing so.

Even so, it now appears many women are not basing their vote on women’s issues.

 “The economy is undoubtedly the number one issue for women going into this election,” Lloyd told IPS.

During the second presidential debate on Oct. 16, each candidate was asked what he would do to achieve equal pay for men and women in the workplace. This is a significant economic issue, as women currently make less than three-quarters what men typically make for the same job.

Obama immediately referenced the first bill he signed as president, a law that makes the pursuit of wage discrimination claims easier.

Romney cited his record of hiring women as part of his cabinet while he was governor of Massachusetts. But he also said that the priority should be getting women into the workplace in the first place.

Indeed, the question many women voters seem to be asking themselves is simply who will create a better economy for them and their families.

“As for women’s issues, although I’m retired, I understand that women need jobs, and Romney is the best hope for restoring the economy,” Judy Smith, a retired voter in the state of Virginia, told IPS.

Yet Romney’s specific plans on how to strengthen the economy also worry many women who work and benefit from government programmes he plans to end.

“Many of Romney’s budget policies are job killers for women, such as his plan to slash funding for social programmes that disproportionately serve and employ women,” wrote Terri O’Neill, president of the National Organisation of Women, a group of feminist activists, after the second debate.

Beyond the economy

Although the economy is front and centre for many as the Americans head to the polls, some voters, particularly young ones, are looking beyond the country’s dire financial state to changes in social and foreign policies that could be a large part of their adult lives.

“I realise that the economy is a disaster and we need to get to a balanced budget. However, I can’t justify solving this problem by voting for someone who would take us backwards in terms of social policies,” Taylor Dempsey, 22, a New York state voter and Peace Corps volunteer, told IPS.

Feminists disagree that the economy is even the central issue for the presidential race.

“The issues women are voting on are the big health care issues,” Eleanor Smeal, the president and founder ofFeminist Majority Foundation, told IPS. “They are voting for the right to birth control, to affordable health care, and health care coverage throughout their retirement.”

“The gender gap is alive and well, and Romney has chosen to be against us women on the issues that are most important to us,” Smeal continued.

Obama has worked hard throughout his administration and campaigns to appeal directly to women voters on  issues he thinks drive their vote. Yet many women voters are frustrated with the Obama campaign’s isolation of women from men on voter’s issues.

“I am frustrated by what I perceive to be the Obama campaign’s pandering to women on a very narrow range of women’s health issues, and I do not appreciate the assumption that women vote solely on such issues,” Julissa Milligan, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, told IPS.

Despite Romney’s attempt to keep the conversation focused on the economy and job creation, his Republican colleagues around the country continue to stoke controversy on women’s issues.

When asked about his “no exceptions” stance on abortion last month, Representative Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee in Missouri, said that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy.

During a debate last week, Richard Mourdock, the Republican Senate nominee in Indiana, said in defence of his opposition to abortion, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

While Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have distanced themselves from these comments, they continue to support their fellow Republicans’ candidacy.

With four days left before votes are cast, candidates have no more time to waste on issues that won’t drive people to the ballot box.

“The fact is, women voters today know that there is a lot of good news for women and girls in the United States today, and they want a president who wants to help grow our economy, not play gender politics,” said Schaeffer.