Three myths about women voters that wouldn’t go away in 2012

Protesters stand together during a Planned Parenthood rally at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. (Joe …

In the bitterly fought battle for women voters this election season, both candidates dwelled on issues like equal pay, abortion, access to contraception and women's unemployment. And the news media eagerly speculated on the candidates' chance of success with female voters, who made up 53 percent of the electorate in 2008.

In the process, a few major myths emerged about the female voter, from their views on abortion to whether their dating life influences them in the voting booth. Here are three of the biggest ones:

Myth No. 1: Women are more in favor of abortion rights than men are

For the past year, Democrats argued Republicans are waging a "war on women" for wanting to make all abortions illegal, while Republicans  countered that Democrats don't want any restrictions on abortion. Each side is attempting to paint the other as extreme, hoping to pick up on-the-fence women voters in the process.

But, despite how they're sometimes portrayed in the news media and by political candidates, female voters are about as divided on abortion as men are.

"One of the central myths in American politics is that women are more pro-choice than men," Karen Kaufman, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who has researched the gender gap, told Yahoo News.

In 2011, 59 percent of men and 56 percent of women said in a Gallup poll that abortion should be legal in no circumstances or only in a few.

Men and women are much more divided on the issue of war (women oppose military interventions) and the role of government (women are more wary of federal spending cuts) than on abortion.

That fact may come as a surprise in this election in particular, as abortion and reproductive issues took on a huge role. Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama for requiring employers' insurance plans to provide free contraception, calling the health care reform's mandate an infringement on employers' freedom of religion. Meanwhile, to paint Romney as extreme and out of touch, Obama seized on the abortion-related comments of a handful of Republicans like Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who said women who are raped should not be allowed to access legal abortions because he believed, falsely, that they could not physically become pregnant.

Rutgers political scientist Susan Carroll told Yahoo News she has not seen a presidential election contest as focused on abortion and reproductive rights since 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade was decided.

"Candidates have wanted to run away from abortion in previous elections," Carroll sad. "When you talk about it, you alienate someone."

Despite the fact that women are about equally split on abortion, it still makes sense that the Obama campaign has relentlessly highlighted comments from Akin, Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, and a few other Republicans explaining why they think abortions should be illegal in all circumstances. The majority of both men and women think abortions should be legal in cases of rape or the health of the mother, so the ads paint the candidates—and by extension, Romney—as outside of the mainstream.

Playing defense, Romney put up TV ads in three key swing states saying he would not outlaw abortion in these cases and does not oppose contraception. (An anti-abortion group, meanwhile, bought ads in swing states calling Obama "an abortion radical" for sending federal funding to clinics that perform abortions.)

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According to a CBS News poll, more women than men (38 percent) will only support a candidate who shares their views on abortion. One such voter is Susan Moore, an anti-abortion physical education teacher in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Groveport. She told Yahoo News that she's voting for Romney even though she disagrees with the Republicans' tough line on teachers unions.

"It's economics versus values," she said. "I'd vote conviction over jobs, I guess." Moore said she would support Obama if he were against abortion.

Polls suggest that birth control and funding for Planned Parenthood are more clearly winning issues for the Obama campaign. A majority of both women and men in a Gallup/USA Today poll from last month rate Obama higher than Romney on his handling of birth control policy. (The poll found that more than 30 percent of women in 12 swing states said a candidate's birth control policy would be "very important" for how they vote.)

Myth No. 2: The gender gap is about the "war on women"

Carroll says the Obama campaign's focus on reproductive rights is ultimately a way to motivate women who already support Obama to vote on Election Day, rather than a way to sway women in the middle away from Romney. "The people in the base turn out the vote and they need to mobilize them," Carroll said. "Those issues, the fact that women might not be able to get contraception, that can help to motivate women in the base."

That prediction seems to be supported by polling. The latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll shows that the female gender gap in favor of Obama has held steady at 7 percentage points. Meanwhile, men back Romney by six points more than women, which keeps the race at a dead heat.

The 7-point female gap in favor of Obama is in line with the female-male spread that political scientists have observed for 30 years. (Women began consistently voting for Democrats in higher proportions than men starting in the 1980 presidential election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.)

But you wouldn't know that if you turned on cable news, where pundits wonder whether women don't support Romney because Democrats say he and other Republicans are waging a "war on women" on abortion and contraception.

Right now, "the average gender gap is approximately the average of the past nine presidential elections," ABC News/Washington Post pollster Gary Langer told Yahoo News. "It doesn't come from any dynamic in this election. Women are about 10 percentage points more likely to describe themselves as Democrats than Republicans. [The gap] comes from a substantial sense among women that the Democratic party is better attuned to women's issues."

Political scientists say more women than men vote Democratic in part because men and women see the role of government fundamentally differently. Women are more wary of federal spending cuts, and tend to support safety net programs more than the average male voter. Women are also more opposed to military interventions than men.

Shirley Hutner, a manager at a manufacturing company in Indiana, told Yahoo News she voted for John McCain in 2008 but is voting for Obama this time around in part because of his stance on welfare programs.

"I've never been unemployed, I've always been lucky, I've always had a job," Hutner, 40, said. "But if I ever needed help, I would feel like I would be able to get help from the Obama administration and not so much from Romney."

Hutner said she also worries about older workers who were laid off and can't get companies to hire them.

Two of Hutner's female friends adamantly disagreed, however, saying many people on welfare feel "entitled" and are riding the system. "The problem is, everybody counts on that," said Hutner's friend Beverly Brouse, who is voting for Romney. "At some point, that's going to blow up."

Myth No. 3: Women vote like they date

Pundits often conflate a woman's voting and dating preferences. Matthew Dowd, a former aide to President George W. Bush, wrote in an ABC News article ("What women want in a president") that women "want to be in a relationship with a man who is clear, strong, kind ... and can make a woman feel protected and safe." Dowd used this dating prism to postulate that women voters moved to Romney after the first presidential debate in Denver because he came across as strong and the president as weak.

Kevin D. Williamson at National Review argued that because women select reproductive mates for their "status," Romney should emphasize his personal wealth to win the female vote by a landslide.

"From an evolutionary point of view, Mitt Romney should get 100 percent of the female vote. ... You can insert your own Mormon polygamy joke here, but the ladies do tend to flock to successful executives and entrepreneurs," Williamson wrote.

We're not quite sure where the trope that women approach the ballot box like it's an episode of "The Bachelorette" comes from. But pollsters are skeptical of the claims.

"I don't know where that comes from," Langer said.  "I think women base their political attitudes on substantive issues."

Studies have shown that both men and women tend to unconsciously vote for more attractive candidates, which fits in with a large body of research that shows physical attractiveness is rewarded in the workplace.

Because the major presidential candidates over the past 20 years have been wealthy, there's not much research on how a candidate's personal wealth affects voters, male or female.