Kavanaugh Battle Expands Historic Gender Gap Before Election

(Bloomberg) -- The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination is driving a wedge deeper into an already wide political chasm between men and women, leading to what could be an unprecedented gender gap in the 2018 midterm election vote.

With little more than a month before balloting to decide control of Congress, last week’s emotional Senate hearing and now an FBI probe of sexual assault allegations against President Donald Trump’s nominee add to a combustible mix of social and political trends defining this year’s election. Those include the intense partisan split over the president, a potent movement to expose sexual harassment and assault and a record number of women running for office.

Even before California college professor Christine Blasey Ford testified under oath that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were both in high school -- an allegation the nominee has vehemently denied -- polls showed women heavily favored Democratic congressional candidates in the Nov. 6 election.

Now, Republican pollster Frank Luntz said, “It’s going to be the largest gender gap in modern American history.”

Kavanaugh Battle Expands Historic Gender Gap Before Election

The GOP’s troubles with women are likely to hurt the party most in the battle for the House, where Democrats need to flip at least 23 Republican-held seats to gain a majority. Many of the most competitive races are in suburban districts which have large numbers of college-educated women, a group with relatively high turnout. Of the more than 250 women on congressional ballots in November, more than three-quarters of them are running as Democrats.

“The problem for the GOP is twofold: one, the advantage cuts disproportionately in favor of Dems, and two, the drop-off is particularly acute among educated women in the metro suburbs where their members are most vulnerable,” said Liam Donovan, a former operative for the Senate Republican campaign arm who’s now a lobbyist.

The Senate is a more complicated picture. The main battlegrounds are in Republican-leaning states such as West Virginia and Arizona, where recent polling by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies found that a majority of voters -- including women -- want Kavanaugh to be confirmed.

Some Republicans have argued that because Kavanaugh’s nomination to the court is a motivating issue for the party’s voters, the way Democrats have fought it will energize the party’s base.

Support Falls

But Kavanaugh already was facing tepid public support. After Ford went public with her allegations, Kavanaugh’s support fell by 18 points among Republican women, dipping just under 50 percent and pushing overall approval for the nomination under water, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found. Among independent women, 23 percent said he should be confirmed while 36 percent said he should not.

Kavanaugh’s prospects remain uncertain even apart from the allegations, as questions swirl about his broad views on executive power and whether he’d be the fifth vote to overturn or weaken the Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling. A CBS News poll released Monday found that 37 percent of Americans believe he shouldn’t be confirmed -- compared to 35 percent who say he should -- an outcome driven by a 6-point margin of opposition among women.

“This is just gasoline on a fire that was already burning,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women who favor abortion rights. “You are going to have more voters and more volunteers and women saying they are going to make a statement this time.”

Polls over the past month have shown Democrats with a consistent lead over Republicans when voters are asked which party they prefer in the midterms. Much of that is driven by female voters strongly backing Democrats, while men are more narrowly divided between the two parties.

Democratic Advantage

A Pew Research Center poll taken Sept. 18-24 found Democrats with a 10-point lead, thanks to a striking 23-point advantage among women -- men preferred Republicans by 3 points. A NBC/Marist poll taken Sept. 22-24 found Democrats with a 7-point lead overall, powered by a 13-point lead among women, whereas men split with 44 percent preferring each party.

To the extent that the Kavanaugh battle “drives the wedge further, Republicans have to hope that it activates men in the way that blunts Democrats’ overall advantage,” Donovan said. “They can survive a gap -- it’s the sheer one-sidedness that stands to hurt them.”

The gender gap in polls leading up to the 2018 election is larger than in the results of previous midterm elections for the House. In 2014, exit polls showed women picked House Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 4 points. In 2010, the year of a Republican wave, women preferred Republicans by a scant 2 points for the House. In 2006, the year of a Democratic wave, women voted for House Democrats by a margin of 12 points.

Luntz said what’s different about 2018 is that the gender gap is being seen across age groups. Typically it’s larger between younger men and younger women, but narrower among older men and women. This year, he said, more older women may break away from Republicans.

Female Candidates

The Kavanaugh nomination fight comes as women are poised to reach a new milestone in Congress. The House is likely to set records for the total number of women newly elected at once -- more than three dozen if the closest races break their way -- and on the total number of women serving simultaneously, which may exceed 100 for the first time.

John Brabender, a Republican strategist and onetime adviser to former Pennsylvania senator and 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, said he’s not convinced GOP numbers with women can get much worse. “I think most of it is already baked into the cake,” he said.

“There is sort of a female revolution going on at the voting booth,” he said. “Donald Trump has very much energized moderate-to-left-leaning women who were not as politically active as they are today.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.