The elusive gender gap

REMEMBER the gender gap? It was going to help put Michael Dukakis in the White House, because female voters outnumber male voters and Mr. Dukakis seemed to have a lock on a majority of the women's vote. Then George Bush pulled ahead; the gender gap has closed, we were told. Now after an all-out Dukakis effort the race has tightened somewhat.

But for much of the post-convention campaign, Dukakis saw his position among women erode, as it did among men, and for largely the same reasons: He lost control of the campaign agenda and was seen to be on the defensive.

The way the two campaigns handled the economic issue, which Dukakis should have been able to capitalize on better, is telling. When Vice-President Bush claimed credit for more Americans working than ever before, Dukakis correctly pointed out that more people (specifically, more women) are having to work.

But Mr. Bush has managed to make lemonade out of this particular lemon. Observing in his acceptance speech in New Orleans that two of every three jobs created during the current expansion have been filled by ``the women of America,'' he addressed them: ``You know better than anyone that equality begins with economic empowerment. You're gaining economic power, and I'm not going to let them take it away from you.''

Right on, we say, but this is not the kind of thing we're used to hearing from a Republican. It has left Dukakis, whose party has arguably the prior claim as empowerers of women, to lament the decline of the one-paycheck family.

The gender gap itself, meanwhile, remains something of a mystery. That men tend to care more about guns while women care more about butter seems only common sense.

But the differences between men's and women's responses to parties, issues, and candidates seem to grow and shrink over time. Even now some polls find a considerable gender gap and others, virtually none.

Some observers explain away much if not all of the gap as one of economics, not gender: Female voters are likelier than male ones to be black, to be unmarried, to be elderly, to be raising children alone.

Indeed, despite all the use of the language of courtship in this election, women's predisposition to vote for Dukakis had more to do with his being a Democrat than with the personalities of the candidates. But then Dukakis, for much of the campaign, has played down his party's social agenda.

Differences between the two parties figure in here. The Republicans energized their own and then reached out to swing voters. The Democrats, in their zeal to woo swing voters, took their traditional constituencies for granted until the closing days of the campaign.

Dukakis's pitches last week for paycheck justice and abortion rights were a last-minute outreach to a group whose vote he had thought he had sewn up.

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