WASHINGTON — The gender gap is showing signs of returning as men and women voters react to Republicans in markedly different ways.
The trend is potentially troublesome for the GOP's bid to maintain control of Congress in 2006. And it echoes other recent polling data that shows voters unhappy about issues closely tied to President Bush, including the war in Iraq.
In 2000, Mr. Bush performed strongly among women voters, winning an estimated 48 percent of their ballots cast. It narrowed the traditional gender gap in which men have favored Republicans and women Democrats.
But a new poll suggests that the women who helped reelect Bush may now be pulling back from the Republican Party. A nationwide survey of 2,613 voters conducted in May by Garin-Hart-Yang Research found 43 percent of women would support a Democratic candidate in the 2006 congressional elections versus 32 percent who would back a Republican.
Male voters still narrowly favor a Republican congressional candidate, producing a 16-point gap between the genders - a bigger one than in the 2004 Congressional election (14 points) and sharply higher than in the last midterm election in 2002 (5 points).
The survey was sponsored by Emily's List, the largest political action committee in the country. It works for Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.
"The good news for Democrats is that the gender gap is back and it is healthy - a good 16-point gender gap," says Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, who spoke at a Monitor breakfast. "The erosion that now has been appearing in many polls for the Republicans is almost solely attributable to the shift of women voters, and many of the gains that President Bush had in his reelection in November have disappeared with those groups of women voters."
Some GOP strategists see a gender gap, too. Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, a major Republican polling firm, says his data shows a 17-point division. But he argues that when pollsters look at the electorate in other ways, Republicans maintain a large advantage.
He notes, for instance, that married voters preferred Bush by 33 percentage points and frequent churchgoers by 22 points. He says the Emily List gender gap data is "only slightly more than the end result of the last election."
Still, Democrats think the male-female divide, no matter how subtle, presents Republicans with some significant challenges. Pollster Geoffrey Garin notes that while the new survey is a snapshot taken more than a year before the 2006 election, what it "says is that unless the Republicans have a radical change of strategy, they have put themselves on a very slippery slope downward."
Democrats may not want to celebrate a takeover of Congress just yet, however. Mr. Garin cautions that some event could come along that "reshuffles the deck and puts President Bush back into a much more clear commander in chief posture."
And Demo cratic activist Malcolm admits that Democrats "have not closed the deal with many of these women voters." Successful Democratic congressional candidates will need to "show their concern for families," she says, and that concern will be reflected in their stands on issues like healthcare and security.
When asked what their greatest concerns were, women voters identified Social Security (27 percent), followed by the war in Iraq (25 percent), and healthcare (20 percent). The survey also contains stark testimony about unselfishness among the sexes. When asked whether the statement, "Taking care of the needs of other people is the most important role I play," describes them well, 46 percent of women voters said yes. But only 24 percent of men said that description fit them.