Will women be the deciders in the 2014 elections? It’s definitely possible, but understanding the women’s vote involves busting a few myths about women at the polls.
Myth #1: The Gender Gap Will Get the GOP: On October 1, Scott Bland of National Journal looked at the gender gap in 50 independent surveys in Senate and governor’s contests and found an average gender gap of 20 points, much higher than the average gap in 200 races conducted over the past decade. Yes, the gender gap is alive and well. It is a permanent feature of our politics, with women tilting to the Democrats and men to the GOP. Women are a larger share of the population than men and they vote in greater numbers and that matters, too. But it is important to note that it isn’t the size of the gender gap that matters. Ronald Reagan won in 1980 with the same-sized gender gap that Bob Dole had when he lost the 1996 presidential election (18 points).
We should also take a look at the gender gap in the last off-year election in 2010. Men voted solidly for GOP House candidates (55 to 41 percent). Women also voted for GOP candidates but by a much narrower 49 to 48 percent (gender gap 13 points). Two thousand ten was the only House contest in which the GOP won the women’s vote in the past 16 House elections going back to 1980! It’s not clear this year whether key Democratic groups such as younger unmarried women and minorities will turnout in sufficient numbers to cut GOP strength among older married and white women.
Although gender differences will be a reality in most contests on November 4, the women’s vote isn’t a monolith. While women lean more to Democrats than men do, they are not united in their party affiliation or voting preferences.
Myth #2: Gender Will Trump Partisanship: In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll from January, 38 percent of women said the GOP “generally understood the problems and concerns of women” while 62 percent in the next question said that the Democratic Party did. Those are really bad numbers for the GOP.
But that question is abstract and doesn’t tell us how women (or men) will react to real, flesh-and-blood candidates. Two polls released by CNN/ORC this weekend provide some clues.
In Louisiana, where most analysts expect neither of the two most prominent Senate candidates, incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu or Republican Bill Cassidy, to get the necessary 50 percent of the vote, there will likely be a runoff on December 6. When asked about that possibility, 50 percent of likely voters would vote for or lean toward Cassidy with 47 percent for Landrieu. Men like Cassidy (51 to 45 percent), and women split nearly evenly, with 49 percent favoring Cassidy and 48 percent Landrieu. White women favor Cassidy by a whopping 68 to 29 percent.
In the CNN/ORC poll in another hot Senate contest, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan leads GOP challenger Thom Tillis in North Carolina by 46 to 43 percent among likely voters. Women favor Hagan by 49 to 40 percent, while men favor Tillis, 46 to 42 percent. White women who are likely voters prefer Tillis by 51 to 37 percent.
Our read of the data suggests that partisanship will be more powerful than gender for most women and men in most contests.
Myth #3: The So-called War on Women Will Put Many Democratic Women in Office:
In 2010 and 2012, Republicans nominated several Senate candidates who were outside the mainstream. Social issues became central themes in the news cycles in the 2012 Indiana and Missouri contests due to Republican gaffes in those states. This year, Republicans have nominated (and coached) stronger candidates, and the battle cry of a so-called war on women, while still a prominent theme in Democratic messaging, seems more muted nationally.
Democrats need to turn out their core supporters, and they believe using the war on women rhetoric will bring women, and particularly less reliable young single women voters, to the polls. But are the war on women and related issues moving many voters? When Gallup asked people in August about the most important problem facing the country, not even 1 percent volunteered abortion and the organization recorded no mention of women’s issues. The economy and jobs, dissatisfaction with government, and immigration topped Gallup’s list. When the bipartisan Battleground poll asked people what would drive their vote for Congress, 5 percent said their feelings on women’s issues. That’s not insignificant, but nearly five times as many, 24 percent, mentioned the economy. In 2012, six in ten voters said they could vote for a candidate who did not share their views on abortion. Elizabeth Wilner of the Cook Political Report recently reviewed the top themes in Senate and House advertising, and social issues and equal pay ranked near the bottom in terms of the top spots.
While the war on women is getting some limited traction, there is little evidence that it will move large numbers of male or female voters.