April 3, 2012 -- At a campaign rally in New York two weeks ago, Michelle Obama was courting women voters.
The first bill President Obama signed into law, she excitedly told the crowd, was an act intended to help women earn as much as men do. Her husband appointed two "brilliant" women to the Supreme Court, she said. And because Obama's grandmother hit a glass ceiling while equally skilled men surpassed her,"Barack knows what it means when a family struggles," she said.
Women are likely to be a crucial voting bloc in the presidential election; typically, when Democrats don't win a majority of female voters, they lose.
But the latest polling offers a window into how the ongoing national debate on women's issues seems to be playing out among female voters -- and Democrats and Republicans are taking note of a growing divide between married and unmarried women.
In February, 64 percent of unmarried women said they would vote for Obama over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, according to a Democracy Corps survey analyzed by Democratic pollsters. Only 31 percent picked the GOP candidate. The gap — 33 points — was 10 points bigger than in it was in January.
Now look at what married women say: 56 percent said they would vote for Romney, and only 37 percent for Obama, with virtually no change from January to February.
So does Obama have a women problem? Well, yes and no.
Does Romney? Same answer.
Two analysts who have pored over the data — the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, and Page Gardner, the founder of a group that encourages unmarried women to vote — say that single women, while overwhelmingly favoring Obama, don't vote nearly as often as married women do.
In the 2010 midterms, for example, 58 percent of women who were married without children voted, as did 47 percent of married women with kids. But unmarried women stayed away from the polls — just 30 percent of unmarried women with kids voted, and 40 percent of unmarried women without children.
In the 2008 presidential race, unmarried women voted less than married women did, too, though at higher levels. Only 56 percent of single mothers voted, as did 61 percent of unmarried women; meanwhile, 69 percent of married women with children voted and so did 72 percent of married women without kids.
That data seems to favor Romney, but Democrats see hope in growing numbers of unmarried women (almost 2 million more between 2010 and 2012), a group that tends to care more about social issues like birth control and abortion than married women do — conveniently, topics that have been in the news lately courtesy of the Republican primary.
"You don't have to win married women to win the election if unmarried women turn out in good numbers," Lake said.
The Romney campaign is likely to stay as far away from women's health issues as possible once the general election begins, and instead focus squarely on the economy, which remains the most important issue for nearly all voters.
Generally, according to research by Democrats, unmarried women care more about economic matters like jobs than more complicated issues, such as the debt ceiling, the latter being a favorite talking point for Republicans.
Married women, on the other hand, have historically responded warmly to Republicans' economic message favoring less government.
Linda DiVall, a GOP pollster, said the recent focus on women's issues is "not helpful at all" for Romney.
As in elections past, this time around, "The focus will be on married women and working women to close the gender gap," she said. "I think there's plenty of opportunity to do that once the campaign begins to focus solely on the economy and driving distinctions between Romney and Obama."
The evidence would appear to support that idea. Since women's issues — Sandra Fluke, pre-abortion ultrasounds, aspirin between the knees — hijacked the GOP primary, Obama has enjoyed a growing gap over Romney.
An NBC News/Marist poll on Monday gave Obama a 25-point lead over Romney among women overall. A Quinnipiac poll also put Obama over Romney among women in three other swing states: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. In a USA Today/Gallup survey of 12 swing states, Obama has rebounded from winning less than half of women under 50 in February, to getting 60 percent of them and leading Romney by 18 points among women generally.
That might be why Romney's wife, Ann, is emerging on the campaign scene. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has endorsed Romney, told ABC News in an interview shown yesterday that "the more he puts Ann Romney out there, the more people will understand that he has a very strong woman at his side."
The power of the first lady — or in Romney's case, a possible future first lady — is the ability to connect with married women particularly, either as mothers or as women who have experienced the same struggles, ones that men can't relate to as easily.
"I think that there is an openness to the conversation, because there is this notion that women intuitively get their lives in a way that potentially male candidates don't," Gardner said.