Mitt Romney is trying to talk his way out of his gender gap, but take it from me, women like guys who listen. My wife told me that.
Since Ann and Mitt Romney's long marriage appears to be quite strong, he probably knows the value of being a good listener. Unfortunately, his speaking style doesn't display much of it on the campaign trail.
Listening matters. As important as policy may be, voters tend to choose the candidate they think is "on my side." They want someone who connects with them, who conveys an understanding of their hopes and dreams.
That's why recent presidents like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, whatever else you may think of them, always seemed to have their big ears on when talking to people. Listening leads to a level of connection and understanding that voters, among others, appreciate. By that standard, I used to think Romney, the seasoned businessman and former Massachusetts governor, might well have an advantage. President Obama looks by contrast like a loner who has to remind himself to look less professorial and more warm and fuzzy.
Yet it is Romney who has habitually stepped on his own campaign victories with gaffes and a persistent awkwardness about his wealth and political beliefs.
Unlike Bush's folksy "I hear you" or Clinton's empathetic "I feel your pain," Romney's delivery tends to sound about as engaging as a CEO's annual report to stockholders.
I believe that helps explain why a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, which asks which man "better understands the economic problems people in this country are having," gives the edge to Obama (49 percent) over Romney (37 percent).
Among women, Obama scores 20 points over Romney on this empathy question, up 3 percentage points since a February survey. The partisan gender gap is not new. Men have been voting mostly Republican and women mostly Democratic for more than 30 years. But the gap suddenly widened in the past couple of months.
Why? Conventional wisdom blames a string of debates and controversies about birth control and related social issues of particular importance to women. In fact, these issues have often crowded out the economic issues on which Obama is more vulnerable.
Romney faces the same challenge that dogged Sen. John McCain four years ago: How do you hold on to the party's skeptical conservative base while reaching out to attract swing voters and close the gender gap? McCain answered that challenge by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. That didn't work out so great. McCain lost the election, but the pantheon of TV punditry gained a new right-wing superstar.
Romney's awkwardness about equity for women showed itself when a reporter asked for his thoughts at the all-male Augusta National Golf Club. Obama had just called for the club, home of the Masters golf tournament, to accept women as members.
Romney agreed, but with an awkward response so loaded with qualifying "ifs" that it sounded like an insurance contract: "Certainly if I were a member, if I could run Augusta, which isn't likely to happen, of course I'd have women into Augusta," Romney said. I think that was a "yes."
Romney often sounds like he could use what President George H.W. Bush used to call "the vision thing." It calls for more than balanced budgets. It begins with a strong inner desire to repair the nation's divisions and revive our sense of shared values and common purpose. Women appreciate that. Men do, too.