To hear all the buzz, Republicans are at war with women. Consider Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for Bush the elder, who recently claimed “The GOP is hemorrhaging the women’s vote” and called on party leaders to turn things around quickly. As in now.
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.
Facts and historical patterns rarely get in the way of political posturing, but a reality check is certainly in order. Here are some things Republicans should keep in mind as they look to bridge the gender gap and chart a winning path to November.
First, interpret polls correctly.
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. Just ask Howard Dean or Michele Bachmann how quickly the tides of favorability can turn.
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. To measure gendered support for President Obama, therefore, we calculate the difference in how many men and women say they will vote for him, not the difference between women themselves as they choose between the candidates.
In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, women preferred Mr. 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 Obama versus 49 percent of men) was only 9 points – still a gap, but by no means a chasm.
In the Illinois primary March 20, all four of the candidates fared about the same with women and men. The gender gap in the Romney vote, for example, was a statistically insignificant 2 points (46 percent of women to 48 percent of men).
Second, Republicans need to understand what the gender gap is actually saying about women and issues.
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. Although Reagan appears to have edged out Jimmy Carter among women voters (46 percent to 45 percent), the gap between female and male support for Reagan was a statistically significant eight points (46 percent to 54 percent).
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.”
A majority of Americans say abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. In the past few years, slightly more women than men report holding more absolute views on abortion, but they represent both sides of the debate. About 1 in 4 women say abortion should be legal under any circumstances, but about 1 in 5 women say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.
Third, 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, both men and women 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.
Fourth, consider the gender gap in context.
It 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.