Around the 1964 presidential election--back when "Mad Man" Don Draper was still smoking Camels--men and women began to gradually diverge in their political views and behavior. We call this the “gender gap.”
Political scientists Karen M. Kaufman, John R. Petrocik and Daron Shaw, in their book Unconventional Wisdom: Facts and Myths about American Voters, observe this split “that began more than forty years ago has grown into a significant and enduring political division.”
The gender gap creates some fascinating American political axioms. Writing at Pollster.com last week, Margie Omero reveals two that might shape this year’s midterms. “First, men predict the winner of the majority,” Omero observes. “When men give Democrats the edge in exit polls, Democrats win the majority of House seats. When men don’t, Democrats don’t. Second, when women give Democrats a double-digit margin in exit polls, Democrats win the majority of House seats. When women don’t, Democrats don’t.”
Omero presents exit poll data from 1992 to 2008 to support her case. Men chose Democrats over Republicans in three elections during that period: 1992, 2006, and 2008. In those years, women also preferred Democrats by double digits. And in all three cases, Democrats won a majority of House votes. In the five other elections--when those conditions did not hold--the GOP won the majorities in Congress.
But the gender gap is neither constant nor caused by men and women equally. Kaufman and her colleagues demonstrate it averaged about 5 points during the 1960s and 1970s. It disappeared around the time of the Watergate scandal, grew slightly during the 1980s, and then surged to double digits around the time of Clinton’s reelection in 1996. It then slipped back to around 7 points on average in the last several elections.
They also show that much of the gap was caused by men becoming more Republican rather than women shifting toward the Democrats.
Whether the gender gap moves again--and in what direction--holds major implications for this November’s election--particularly given the patterns Omera reveals. If men favor Republicans and women fail to deliver double-digit margins, the chances of the Democrats retaining control of Congress look bleak.
Some new research by political scientists Paul M. Kellstedt, David A. M. Peterson and Mark Ramirez, published in the most recent edition of Public Opinion Quarterly, provides strong evidence that men are the major driver of change in the gender gap.
Kellstedt and his colleagues don’t analyze electoral behavior per se, but instead focus on the gender gap in public opinion toward the role of government.
They argue the public mood for more or less government moves in the opposite direction of policy in Washington. Americans prefer less government when federal policy becomes more activist and more government when policymakers move in a conservative direction.
Yet do men and women respond in the same way?
Analyzing data between 1980-2005, Kellstedt and his colleagues find men and women do indeed move in tandem--toward a more conservative mood during times of liberal policy and increased liberal views when Washington presents more conservative policies.
But they also find an interesting twist, one that provides a possible explanation for changes in the gender gap over time: men move more dramatically than women. Kellstedt and his colleague write: “The movement in the gender gap … is a result of men’s greater responsiveness…Men’s response to shifts in spending are around twice as large as women’s.” It’s this movement among men, triggered by shifts in policy, that produce fluctuations in the gender gap.
Has this more rapid movement by men occurred again in the last two years? After Barack Obama’s election in 2008 consolidated Democratic power in Washington, have men shifted more rapidly than women? Some evidence suggests they have.
First, a Pew survey on independents released last month found that independent men moved from a +19-point Democratic advantage in 2006 exit polls to +19-point GOP edge in their most recent polling--a net 38-point swing. By comparison, women move the same direction, but by only 23 points.
Second, Omera’s data also supports the “men moved more” thesis. According 2006 exit poll data, men preferred Democrats by 3 points. She also presents gender data from seventeen public polls released in September and October 2010. The average reveals Republicans now leading by 9.7 points among men--a shift of almost 13 points in four years. Women moved about half that amount during the same period.
The public mood moved a lot due to the political and policy consequences of the 2006 and 2008 elections. But it’s the “Mad Men” that look like they’ve responded the most – shifts that might augur a Republican congressional majority in 2010.