By Carla Marinucci
Suddenly, it’s a “binders full of women” world.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comment during Tuesday’s presidential debate about gathering “binders full of women” for possible hires when he was Massachusetts governor spiraled into the social media stratosphere within minutes.
Facebook pages erupted, comic YouTube mashups were created, and millions of tweets fostered furious Twitter trending. All that seemed left was the inevitable “Saturday Night Live” segment.
Romney’s tossed-off quote “didn’t sound like an enlightened guy of 2012, but more like a guy from the 1960s,” said Martha Whetstone, a former campaign operative for Bill Clinton who mused that Romney appeared to liken the professional, qualified working woman to an “exotic” prize found in adventurous tales of yore.
“You know, ‘Go seek and find me the women, and bring them to me from the hinterlands,’ ” she laughed. “Do you bring anyone binders of men?”
The instantaneous reaction to Romney’s comments was a stunning example of how little room there is for error and that a candidate’s brief and unscripted comment can inspire millions of people to weigh in.
Less certain is how reaction to Romney’s remark, which he made during a discussion of pay equity during the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., will affect the presidential race – and the women’s vote in particular.
A study released Wednesday by TiVo Research and Analytics – a subsidiary of the popular DVR maker – showed that the most-watched moment during the 98-minute debate came when the candidates discussed women’s workplace issues and the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s salaries.
In that exchange, Romney recalled that when he was filling his gubernatorial Cabinet, “all the applicants seemed to be men.”
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women,” he said.
The Twittersphere erupted immediately, from the playful (“What’s all this talk about binders full of women, and where can I get one?”) to political, such as this one from the Obama campaign: “The President talked about women as breadwinners. Romney talked about them as resumes in ‘binders.’ “
Web memes – themes that travel across social media – multiplied with “binder” analogies, such as a smug photo of Hugh Hefner graced with the phrase, “Binders full of women? Oh sure, I’ve got hundreds of them.”
Spirit Airlines even jumped in, seizing the line for a new tongue-in-cheek ad: “We’ve got tons of binders full of sales. Women will love them!”
More serious issue
But there was a potentially more serious impact to the discussion, analysts said.
Romney’s words implied that despite his decades in the business world, “he didn’t have any women in his inner circle … and had to resort to binders of faceless people and somehow didn’t know any women who were qualified,” said political scientist Mary Marcy, president of Dominican University in San Rafael.
“It hit a nerve because of the tone of it,” she added. “Part of the concern about Romney is that he’s not really in touch with people and he may not be in touch with women’s lives and their day-to-day challenges, and that comment reinforced it.”
Karen Middleton, president of Emerge America, a national organization that recruits women candidates for office, said the comment was so jarring that she “had to leave the debate and start posting.”
Middleton, a former member of the Colorado Legislature, said she had direct experience with the story behind the “binders full of women.”
In 2002, 25 women’s organizations in Massachusetts came together to change the appointments process in the state, said Middleton. MassGap, the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, approached Romney in an effort to expand his appointments of women at the executive level, she added.
While Romney got credit for considering their proposal, Middleton said, “What’s sad is that in 2012 we have to dig out the applications and bring the women to the nomination process.”
The Romney campaign, concerned about attracting the women’s vote, released a new ad during the debate that suggested the governor is a moderate on another key women’s issue, reproductive rights.
The ad features a woman who expresses worries about Romney’s often-stated opposition to abortion and contraception funding through groups such as Planned Parenthood. The woman says she researched his views on Google and finds he doesn’t oppose contraception “at all” and allows for abortion in cases including rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement Wednesday that “President Obama’s failed economic policies have left women with fewer jobs, higher poverty and diminishing opportunities for the next generation. And even inside the Obama White House, women have been left behind.”
She said Romney “has a clear record of empowering women” and “will work to build a stronger economy with millions of new jobs to help deliver a real recovery for all Americans.”
But Dawn Laguens, vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the group’s political arm, charged that “Romney is running away from his positions” on key issues like health care and contraceptive funding that are basics for women voters.
Laguens said 1 in 5 American women have sought services from Planned Parenthood and 3 million women are served by its health care and contraceptive services each year. She added that “every poll is showing these are issues that are deeply on women’s minds.”