Does the “women’s vote” in US politics actually exist?

Male and female liberals and male and female conservatives think and vote more like each other than their gendermates across the aisle.
Male and female liberals and male and female conservatives think and vote more like each other than their gendermates across the aisle.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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For the last 30 years, analysts have framed gender issues in politics as a “gap” between how men and women vote. Will a given development, as Melissa Deckman recently asked in The Washington Post, “help the GOP close the gender gap?” Is some Democratic candidate “exploiting the gender gap?”

These days, however, the “gap” lens conceals more than it reveals, because it omits some of the key concerns that move female voters and misses fundamental shifts in how American politics are gendered in media and culture. Two trends over the last decade—increasing acceptance of women as political leaders, and heightened polarization along ideological lines—have resulted in an electorate that is divided far more by ideological identification than by gender. With a few important exceptions, male and female liberals and male and female conservatives think and vote more like each other than their gendermates across the aisle.

Take gun control, for an example: Another recent Washington Post article cited a “gender gap” of 13 points in public support for stronger gun laws as an example of Clinton “making gender a focus” of her presidential bid. But that gender gap is dwarfed—and explained—by the partisan gap of 40 points.

As scholars and practitioners both know well, the parties face two different electorates. Republicans have recently dominated the midterm electorate, which is more male; and its female voters, like its male voters, are older and whiter. In 2014, Republicans won men by 16 points, and lost women by four. The results from 2012, a presidential year, are almost the reverse: Obama won women by 12 points and lost men by eight.

In 2012, when more progressive-leaning women came out to vote, “war on women” rhetoric and focus on “women’s issues”—exacerbated by some blunders by male GOP candidates—helped energize women to vote for Barack Obama. Democrats tried a similar line in 2014. But fewer female voters turn out in off-year elections, and those who do are older, whiter, and more likely to be GOP-identified. Indeed, female voters told pollsters they were more concerned about the economy, security and health care, and simply didn’t believe their reproductive rights were at stake.

So the GOP has men—white men, in particular. It also has married women, especially white married women. It doesn’t need to “close the gender gap.” It must, however, retain new generations of white married women while choosing among longer-term strategies—either maximizing the white vote or picking off significant subgroups of the minority vote.

Far from aiming to “ditch the GOP’s image as just for stodgy white men,” as Deckman suggests, Carly Fiorina’s campaign is implementing the playbook that a small band of Republican consultants—who happen to be female—has been developing and urging the party to take on for several cycles now. They repudiate the idea that GOP positions are out of touch with women “on the issues that will likely dominate the next election.”

Instead, GOP strategists are responding to the observation that women across the board rate security and economic issues highly. Conservative women rate those issues higher than “women’s issues.”

Meanwhile, Clinton and Sanders will go on arguing over their records and attitudes on “women’s issues,” because evidence is strong that their primary voters care about these issues intensely. In a general election, either candidate would have to keep their base voters highly-energized on gender issues while reaching out to pluck undecided voters on economic and security concerns.

But no party gets to choose the environment in which it runs—and this is the challenge of gender in politics that a gap analysis misses entirely. The approach doesn’t account for the highly gendered presentation of some major issues.

Start with voters’ understanding of “leadership” itself. Women enjoy some advantages here. A third of voters see them as inherently better at compromise and more honest and ethical. (Partisanship rears its head immediately, though, since Tea Party voters in particular have made clear that they see compromise as a weakness, not a strength.) Most voters from both parties rate men and women as equally capable economic leaders.

But Pew polling highlights just how gendered two major issue areas remain: social policy and national security. Thirty-eight percent of US voters saw women as better leaders on social issues, and 37% saw men as better leaders where security is concerned. This last gap persists, though smaller, across party lines as well—a third of Democrats believe men are better leaders, along with 40% of independents and 46% of Republicans.

Polls aren’t the only useful lens here. Media and cultural representation matters as well. Across the media, Americans get their security expertise presented by commentators with a Y chromosome. Networks present female experts on security with disheartening rarity. Former White House counterterrorism adviser Fran Townsend was a rule-proving exception at CNN. And although women, as of 2013, made up around 15% of America’s active-duty armed forces, you won’t see a female veteran doing TV commentary when shots are fired (though you may well see one discussing benefits, mental health, or other social issues).

While there are tough, smart, well-prepared female reporters and anchors who cover security, they typically interview … men. And only in the last decade have war movies—and then, not even the most commercially-successful ones—presented women in combat and leadership roles. Americans are socialized almost from birth to hear talk of security coming out of male mouths.

Social policy is a different story. Here, men and women both play roles in the public debate, but women play two additional, mostly silent roles: as the bodies that are protected, violated, preserved, acted upon; and as arbiters of whether policies enacted by men and women are sufficient. Male and female candidates alike must shape their public selves in response to whichever set of expectations they are trying to meet. When Bernie Sanders talks about “maternal leave” instead of “parental leave,” he angers one group of young people. But he sounds reassuringly familiar to some older voters, while stressing his own masculinity—real men make sure women get what they need to take care of babies.

The real gender gap, then, is the distance between the (usually unspoken) cultural expectations we have of our politicians and their rhetoric, and the ways women and men today are living their lives. The real competition between parties is over naming and defining those places where reality and culture rub sharply against each other.