Is GOP at war with women? 4 points to keep in mind on the gender gap

To hear all the buzz, Republicans are at war with women. Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for Bush the elder, recently claimed “The GOP is hemorrhaging the women’s vote” and called on party leaders to turn things around quickly.

Americans hear lots of talk about the gender gap, the difference in how men and women vote. Democratic leaders and activists focus their attention on so-called women’s issues to shore up the female vote, while Republicans wring their hands and wonder what they can do to win back the women.

A reality check is in order. Here are four points Republicans should keep in mind as they look to bridge the gender gap and chart a winning path to November.

1.Interpret polls correctly

Ann Romney, wife of Mitt Romney, speaks in Atlanta March 1. Democrats are accusing the GOP of a 'war against women.' Op-ed contributor Amy Black says Republicans should make the effort to win more female votes, but they should take cues from what women voters – not feminist activists – say matters most in the election: the economy. (David Tulis/AP)

Polling data are useful; they provide a good snapshot of what people are thinking at a given moment. But they are just that – an instant picture of the political landscape. The candidate poised to save the party one week is sent to the showers the next.

Many discussions of the gender gap misinterpret its meaning. By definition, a gender gap in voting is the margin of difference between the male and female vote for a candidate –  not the difference between women themselves as they choose between the candidates.

In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, women preferred President Obama to Republican Mitt Romney by 20 points (a large gap to be sure). That’s the kind of polling number that has Republicans such as Ms. Cary so upset, but it doesn’t tell us anything about differences between men and women. The gender gap revealed in the same poll (58 percent of women preferring Mr. Obama versus 49 percent of men) was only 9 points – still a gap, but by no means a chasm.

Understand what the gender gap is actually saying

The term “gender gap” entered public discourse in 1980. Journalists, pundits, and pollsters combed through polling data and noticed a difference in the percentage of women and men voting for Ronald Reagan. Activists were quick to frame the gender gap as a response to feminism. Women, supposedly angry that the Republicans reversed their stance on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and abortion, expressed their concerns at the ballot box.

It’s a nice argument from anecdote, but the story line doesn’t fit the facts. As feminist scholar Jane Mansbridge documented, “Despite intuitive convictions to the contrary, the gender gap was largely traceable to gender-related differences in attitudes toward violence and war, while ‘the ERA and possibly abortion’ had essentially no role in the matter.”

The public may believe that abortion is the issue that most separates male and female voters, but numbers show otherwise. As Gallup summarized, “Over the past three decades, men and women have consistently held similar views about the extent to which abortion should be legal.”

Focus on what matters most to women

The largest and most enduring gender-based differences on policy are on government care for the vulnerable and the use of military force. Women are more supportive of social welfare programs, and they are less likely to favor war.

This election season, however, these potentially divisive subjects are not top-of-mind. When asked to name the most important problem facing the country today, 7 of 10 voters mention economic issues – on this, men and women generally agree. The GOP should take a page from President Clinton’s playbook. In 2012, as in 1992, the message for women (and men) should be “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Let Democrats waste their energies trying to woo women on “reproductive rights.” They will shore up their base and alienate the middle. Republicans may have a hard time winning more women with proposed cuts to the social safety net, but they will resonate with almost all voters if they focus on the economy and jobs.

Consider the gender gap in context

The gender gap is only one of many “gaps” in voting behavior, and far from the largest. In recent decades, men and women have indeed voted differently, with women trending Democratic and men trending Republican. But in many cases, the apparent gap between men and women is within the margin of sampling error.

Consider a few other gaps that might better be described as chasms. In the recent Pew survey, the gap between African-Americans and whites who support Obama is 55 points. The gap between secular voters and white evangelicals is 50 points.

Of course, women’s preferences for party and candidate are important. But Republicans can win and have won the White House without winning a majority of the women’s vote. Republicans should make the effort to win more female votes, but they should take cues from what women voters – not feminist activists – say matters most in the election.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.