There is not just a gender gap in American politics: there is a gender chasm. Women – or at least single women – are overwhelmingly pro-Democrat. But why? And could that change?
The numbers look overwhelming. In a succession of recent polls, Democrats, and Barack Obama, enjoy a huge lead among women voters.
The difference is most striking when it comes to single women. One survey shows Obama 29 points ahead of Romney. Another shows childless working women favour Obama by a margin of 20 points. There is a similar lead among women with a college education.
The political divide is nothing new. Democrats have enjoyed more support from women than from men for over 30 years. Back in 1983, the political strategist Ann Lewis proclaimed: “The gender gap is the Grand Canyon of American politics. It is wide, it is deep, and it is beautiful.” And it is a divide which has grown even wider during the Obama years.
Of course, nothing in politics is that simple. For a start, women do not vote in some kind of monolithic bloc, motivated by purely “female” issues. Look a little closer at the polling data, and it reveals that although Obama might have the singleton vote wrapped up, married voters actually favour the Republicans. Working mothers, in particular, are pretty receptive towards the anti-tax, deficit reducing message of the Romney campaign.
The gender gap is the Grand Canyon of American politics. It is wide, it is deep, and it is beautiful. Ann Lewis, Democratic strategist
But for most women, it is the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, who are speaking their language. Traditionally, women are more likely to favour an active role for government in protecting the poor, the elderly, the sick. Many have proved fairly hostile to Republican attempts to restrict abortion rights and access to birth control. And Obama also wins points for pushing through the equal pay act, appointing two women to the Supreme Court, and channeling more funding into education.
In a close-fought election year, single women are proving to be a vital political group: their voices are increasingly powerful. They already account for a quarter of all eligible voters, and their numbers are growing. Washington analyst Jessica Gavora says they are “the most reliably Democratic voting group outside African Americans”. Little wonder, then, that the campaigns are devoting serious resources into getting them out to the polls.
Those “single anxious females”, it seems, are concerned about healthcare, concerned about families, concerned about jobs, concerned about their rights – those women could hold the key to the election in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia. Polling by Emily’s List shows these women want the rich to pay their fair share of tax. They want the state to spend more on a social safety net. They want security in retirement.
But there is nothing for the Democrats to be complacent about. Polling expert Anna Greenberg has pointed out that they have seen their advantage among women shrink away before, in the 2002 mid-terms when both parties essentially scored equally – and then in 2004 when the gap between John Kerry and George W Bush was just three points.
That, wrote Greenberg, showed that the values that had attracted women to the progressive cause were eroding: “As Democrats failed to compete on economic issues… they lost socially conservative downscale women largely on cultural and secuirty issues. In the absence of an economic alternative, security and morality crowded out the issues where Democrats compete most strongly.”
This time around, though, it is social issues that are playing trickily for the GOP, amid the noise and fury over their “war on women”. The latest Obama campaign ad attacks precisely this point, warning that if the Republicans get their way, “it’s a scary time to be a woman”. On the campaign trail, the president told crowds in Colorado that the Republicans wanted to impose policies “more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century”.
Tellingly, he was introduced by Sandra Fluke, the young woman famously condemned as a “slut” by right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh after she gave evidence on the Hill over a Republican move to stop women getting free contraception as part of their healthcare plans.
As for the GOP hopeful, Mitt Romney has set up a “Women for Mitt Coalition“, headed by his wife Ann, while a number of prominent women will be given prime-time speaking spots at the Republican national convention later this month in Tampa.
And after the brief (and unfounded) rumour flurry about the possibility of a female running mate, it remains to be seen whether the addition of Paul Ryan to the Romney ticket will change the way men – and women – decide to vote. An early poll by CNN did show that slightly more women had a positive view of Ryan than a negative one – although far more women had never heard of him.
Democrats believe that the Romney-Ryan partnership will not win many women round, not with Ryan’s record voting against equal pay and in favour of granting “personhood” to a foetus from the moment of conception. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell sparked a backlash from conservative commentators after she declared: “This is not a pick for suburban moms. This is not a pick for women. This is a pick for the base”.
What is for sure, though, is that in a race where every undecided voter is up for grabs, where every vote matters, women do have a voice – a powerful one – in the 2012 election. There may be no woman heading for the White House just yet, but at least the issues most women care deeply about can no longer be marginalised or relegated to the sidelines. You could even say this election is all about women, and all the better for it.
Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News