Lots of pundits noted Vice President Joe Biden's answer on abortion in which he stated he would "not impose" his own religious views on American women who face that very personal decision. What commentators have missed is why Biden's answer was potentially the single most important moment in the vice presidential debate.
First, it drew a clear contrast. Biden and President Obama are not invested in further restricting access to abortion while their challengers, Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan, are.
But more importantly, the discrepancy between the two tickets spoke directly to unmarried women -- who had been providing Obama his edge in swing states prior to the first presidential debate. College educated white women and minority women have typically been on Obama's side. But as Ron Brownstein of the National Journal reported a few weeks back, Obama was polling much better than in 2008 among non-college educated white women.
"These women have tilted Republican in every presidential election since 1980 except 1996, and in 2008, Obama won only 41 percent of them," Brownstein wrote in an article examining the trend. But before the first presidential debate, Obama had been drawing 46% of them in Michigan, 48% in Florida, 49% in Nevada, 50% in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, 51% in Pennsylvania, and 52% in Ohio and Iowa.
That's what I call the Komen effect.
But let's back up for a second. Here's what people have fundamentally misunderstood about the abortion question today versus its predecessor as we came to know it during the culture wars of the '90s: While the linguistics of it sound no different than they did a couple decades ago, the answer now provides insight into a much broader set of issues than it did during that political era. And context is everything.
Today, the single ladies in America have begun to view a politician's positioning around preserving a woman's right to choose as a surrogate for the age-old political question, "Are you with me or against me?" In terms of my healthcare, financial circumstances, family life, pay equity, and more generally, my overall well-being.
And that's where the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation stepped in this year to reframe this debate for years to come.
The foundation's move to quit funding breast exams at Planned Parenthood -- an organization that one in five U.S. women visits for health services at least once in her life -- ripped the mask off an uncomfortable truth about anti-abortion absolutists: They would willingly sacrifice critical preventive health care for women on their tunnel-vision mission to stamp out abortion in this country.
Komen's motivation was widely viewed as a political swipe at Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services, which account for just three percent of the organization's overall services. Meanwhile, 76 percent of Planned Parenthood's clients receive services to prevent unintended pregnancy and the organization provides nearly 770,000 Pap tests and 750,000 breast exams each year.
The dust up was a wake up call to women across the nation that their access to abortion wasn't simply about their reproductive organs. It was about their overall well being -- and the people who want to cut off their abortion access were much less interested in the totality of their circumstances than they were in controlling that singular event.
Following the Komen misstep, Planned Parenthood went to work connecting the dots between women's overall welfare and the candidates' abortion views. An August 2012 poll commissioned by the organization found that Obama's lead at that point among women in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia grew nine points (from +13 to +22) once they learned of Romney's support for overturning Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood. By subgroup, Obama's standing improved by 10 points among non-college educated women and by 13 points among independent women when they learned of Romney's positions.
Virginia Senate Democratic candidate Tim Kaine saw a similar opening in a debate last month against his opposition, Republican George Allen.
"It's demeaning to suggest that issues about women are just social issues and not economic issues. If you force women to have an ultrasound procedure against their will, and pay for it, that's an economic issue," Kaine told the audience on September 20. "When George Allen was in congress, he repeatedly voted against Family Medical Leave Act. He's supported the Blunt Amendment to enable employers to take away contraceptive coverage for their employees. These are women's issues, but they're bigger than that -- they're family issues and they're economic issues."
It's that contrast that female voters needed President Obama to remind them of in the first debate earlier this month in Colorado.
But as Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg surveyed single women in Colorado during the first presidential debate, he said they failed to hear President Obama lay out a cohesive argument for how he would help improve their lives.
"They heard nothing there that was relevant to them," Greenberg, who had been hired by Women's Voices Women Vote to conduct research on unmarried women, told Washington Post reporter Greg Sargent. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, "talked about what he is going to do for the middle class -- his five point plan -- they were very responsive."
Part of the reason Romney played so well in the first debate was because he relayed a sense of passion about the struggles of the middle class and presented a basic plan to help them. That's what unmarried women heard too.
But notably, those female voters were not reminded of Romney's positions on abortion and Planned Parenthood. In fact, no one uttered the words "woman," "women," or "female" even once during the debate, which frankly, was a gift to Romney.
If President Obama wants to win back all the single ladies, he must expose the limitations of Romney's concern for unmarried women in America -- including economic and other issues.
Touting Romney's ambition to overturn Roe v. Wade gets straight to the heart of the matter. That one reminder will serve as a litmus test for a larger, incredibly potent set of issues that concern single women. And that's a debate President Obama should embrace not ignore.