On Women Voters and Everyone Else

Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, the pursuit of the women’s vote—again and again, political pundits in this election year have highlighted the role of gender. Yet, while gender has certainly played an important role in this campaign, it has actually been a key to the outcome of presidential elections for over a quarter century. To understand how this is so, we need to remember the most important fact about gender—that it is two-sided, as in “man” and “woman.” The media tend to talk about “women voters” as if they were the opposite of “regular voters.” In truth men, like women, are a voting bloc, but their centuries of privilege hide that fact. To understand the role of gender in politics, we must look at both sexes. What have been the patterns of gendered behavior in recent presidential elections? Since 1980, the Republicans have run stronger with men than women, while the Democrats have drawn more support from women. A basic reason that Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980 is that male voters left the Democratic Party to vote for him. Where men had split evenly between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the election of 1976, they supported Reagan 55 percent to 38 percent. Many men have kept those Republican loyalties since then, helping to spur the political success of conservatism for nearly three decades. From 1984 to the present, men have voted for Republican over Democratic presidential candidates by a margin of nearly eight percentage points. What has divided women from men in their voting patterns since then? Scholars have found that “compassion issues” (social welfare programs, government services) are most likely to separate the sexes, with female voters more likely than male voters to support such programs. For instance, the American National Election Survey has been asking Americans since 1982 whether they favored more government services. On average over those years, 45 percent of women have favored more government services as opposed to 34 percent of men. “Use-of-force” issues also divide the genders, with male voters more likely to favor military action and the death penalty. Note that I haven’t mentioned “women’s issues” like abortion and equal rights. On these issues, men vote the same way that women do. But presidential campaigns are about more than policies. They are also a form of public theater that offers competing personalities, storylines, symbols and catch phrases. And here the parties diverge even more than they do on the issues. The Republicans tend to practice presidential politics as a drama of strength and toughness. They summon up the perilous world of action movies—a world of terrorists, criminals and evil empires—and show that they’ll protect the nation by getting tough with the forces of evil. They feature their candidates riding horses and clearing brush; they borrow catch phrases from action movies (“Make my day,” “Read my lips”), they invent slogans with masculine overtones (“Drill, baby, drill”) and they draw masculine heroes into their cause (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris). The Democrats stage a very different drama. They often present themselves as concerned Americans working for justice, equality and compassion at home and abroad. Their conventions are tableaux of American diversity, and their candidates apply policy expertise to issues of fairness and equality. Equal parts Oprah and Star Trek: The Next Generation, the political theater of the Democrats draws women more than men, where the Republican drama draws more men than women. One final point is worth mentioning. Research has shown that voters in elections for senator and governor do not support candidates simply on the basis of gender. Conservative women candidates have generally drawn equal or greater support from men than women, and women voters, when faced with a choice between a liberal man and a conservative woman, are more likely to support the liberal man. And this is true in this year’s presidential election. According to a New York Times poll taken before the financial crisis, John McCain’s support among women dropped from a seven-point lead before the conventions to a tie afterward. His choice of a woman as his vice-presidential candidate, in other words, coincided with a decline in his support from women. Meanwhile, polls have shown that Sarah Palin’s favorability ratings are higher among men than women. In sum, gender is a powerful determinant of political preference. In recent years, only race and income have been better predictors of voting behavior. There is every reason to believe that this will be true in the current campaign. Dr. Tony Rotundo is an Instructor in History and Social Science and Co-Director of the Brace Center for Gender Studies. Professor of Political Science Virginia Sapiro, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, will speak about the role that gender has played in the presidential politics of 2008 on October 21 at 8 p.m in Kemper Auditorium.