The Gender Gap Is Not Necessarily Bad News for Republicans
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- That Republicans suffer from a “gender gap” has for decades been a nearly unshakable assumption of American political journalism. Dick Polman recently put it this way in The Atlantic: “The gender gap — essentially, the difference in the way men and women vote — has generally plagued the GOP at the national level since 1992.” Polman argues that Republicans will make that problem worse if they act with disrespect toward Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when they were teenagers.
All people, including the professor and the judge, should be treated with dignity. But myths about the gender gap have clouded too much thinking about the politics of this controversy, and about politics more generally.
While gender is less predictive of voting behavior than race, marital status and frequency of religious attendance, the gap itself is no myth. Women are more likely to vote for Democrats than men are. That pattern has held in nearly all elections for many years now. As a result, close elections in which most men vote for the Republican and most women vote for the Democrat are common. The pattern holds throughout the population. White women with college degrees are more likely to vote for Democrats than white men with college degrees.
But while the gap is real, two dubious ideas have arisen around it. The first is that the gap has to do with views about abortion. There is good reason to think that men and women have different views on some issues. Compared to men, women tend to be more favorable toward an expansive welfare state, for example, and less favorable toward the use of military force. It may also be that women are more likely than men to be so revolted by President Donald Trump that it affects their vote.
There aren’t a lot of pro-choice Republican politicians these days. But when they run for office, exit polls show gender gaps in line with the usual ones. In 2014, when pro-choice Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine was on the ballot, she had a gender gap of six points — the same as her pro-life Republican colleague Pat Roberts of Kansas.
The second mistaken assumption about the gender gap, and the more pervasive one, is that it’s bad news for Republicans. Republicans should of course be on the lookout for ways to increase their support among women. But large gender gaps are compatible with Republican political victories, and growing ones are compatible with improved Republican performance.
The gender gap grew in Pennsylvania between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections — but Republicans performed better, too. (Their vote share rose, but more among men than among women.) Nationally, too, the gender gap grew while the Democrats' popular-vote margin shrank.
In the 20 Senate races for which there are exit polls from 2016, there was no relationship between the size of the gender gap and Republicans’ performance. Georgia, where Republicans won, saw a 16-point gap; Illinois, where they lost, had a gap of only 6 points. In the 13 races Republicans won, they did an average 9.1 percent better among men than among women. In the seven they lost, the average gap was … 9.1 percent.
When male Republican candidates are struggling, it is easy to look at the polls, which will invariably show them with large deficits among women, and conclude that they need to do something to “address the gender gap”: make new ads with female relatives saying how great they are, or move left on abortion, or tout their record of helping women who own small businesses.
Some of those steps might even be helpful. The reasoning is nonetheless unsound. Unpopularity among women doesn’t necessarily mean that Republicans have to do something to boost their support among women specifically. They might, for example, be better off trying to improve their showing among voters without college degrees of both sexes.
There are some signs that this year’s midterms will go badly for Republicans. If so, it will be attributed to women going for the Democrats, and the role of Trump and Kavanaugh in their votes will be endlessly dissected. But a poor showing among women is exactly what you would expect in a bad year for Republicans. Look at the Republican and Democratic years together, though, and there’s a point that’s obvious but rarely made: Republicans’ weakness among women hasn’t been any more electorally consequential than Democrats’ weakness among men. If the gender gap is a problem, it’s not for just one party.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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