Real gender gap in politics: men

New polls show George W. Bush gaining among women, but Al Gore still lags behind with male voters.

The Democrats have a gender problem. They seem to be having trouble getting men to commit.

While pundits, pollsters, and the media make the most of the Republicans' troubles with soccer moms, the Democrats' difficulty with dismayed dads barely gets a mention. Yet the male gender gap - the preponderance of their support for Republicans over Democrats - is greater than the much-vaunted women's divide.

"The Democrats have a men problem, and it may be bigger than the Republicans' women problem," says Anna Greenberg of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.

While Bush is working to cut into Gore's support among women by softening the hard-right image he projected in the primaries, Gore doesn't appear to be putting the same effort into courting male voters. In fact, his much-joked-about adoption of earth tones and the hiring of Naomi Wolf, feminist author of "The Beauty Myth," to retool his image hasn't exactly helped him with the lunch-pail set.

But he ignores the male vote at his own peril. A poll released yesterday found that Gore and Bush have pulled even among women, at 39 percent each, while Bush has a 13-point lead among men.

But Gore could have plenty of opportunity to turn that around. Men are more inclined to switch party allegiances and vote independently, making them, in some pundits' estimation, the real swing voters.

So why don't the media ever talk about the Democrats' man problem?

Reporters first latched onto the notion of the gender gap as a feminine phenomenon in 1980, when feminist leader Eleanor Smeal discovered that women were voting differently from men. Up until that time, women were seen as appendages that voted according to "their husband's pocketbook."

"When the politicians used to talk about economic issues, they only addressed men," says Ms. Smeal, now president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va. "But when it became clear that women vote differently on issues, that changed."

Throughout the late 1970s and '80s, women's groups were able to define women as Democratic voters and key to the party's base, with abortion rights as a central issue.

"Men were out, women were in," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "There was no men's movement, but there was a big women's movement. So it was a natural connection to make in politics, and it stuck."

But Republican analysts have a different take on the gender gap. Pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick blames nothing more than marketing.

"The feminists and their Democratic counterparts have allowed Republicans to believe that this is a problem they suffer among women voters, rather than have the Democrats address the unarguable phenomenon that there's been a male flight, an exodus from the Democratic Party," she says.

Indeed, she contends, the so-called gender gap came about not because massive numbers of women defected from the Republican Party, but because massive numbers of mostly white men left the Democratic Party.

In 1952, Democrats had a 58-point advantage among Southern white men. They were the most Democratic sector of the electorate. But by 1992, Republicans had a one-point advantage with scions of the Confederate South. That means there was a 59-point shift of men away from the Democrats.

"Men have different views than women of the role of government - they're less activist," says Ms. Greenberg. "When the Democratic Party became associated with racial liberalism and the welfare state that benefited minorities and women, as opposed to white men, they began to shift."

Men are more racially conservative than women, less likely to favor protection of the environment, and more likely to support military intervention over diplomatic solutions, according to Greenberg. They are also less in favor of gun control.

But pollster John Zogby has identified a new group that could soon enter the political jargon: baby-boomer fathers, for whom social issues have become increasingly important.

"Baby-boomer fathers are much more active in child-rearing than previous generations and therefore much more concerned about more than just paying bills," he says.

So-called "women's issues," like "quality of education, healthcare, [and] the uninsured," are important to this group of men, Mr. Zogby points out. And they are dominating this year's presidential race, with each candidate trying to "out-compassion" the other.

"The dominant issues for men have been lessened: the military, taxation, and such," agrees Timothy Mooney of Voter.com. "We've been playing more on women's issues during the last couple of election cycles."

There's also been a change in demographics, Mr. Mooney adds. "More women are going to college than men, and that's going to change the demographics."

As women become more educated and professional, they also tend to become more liberal, according to studies of voting patterns. At the same time, younger men have been shifting toward either the Republican Party or declaring political independence.

"Only 16 percent of young white males are registering now as Democrats," says Greenberg. "Young white men are a real problem for the Democratic Party."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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