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Why Do Women and Men Vote Differently?

Hint: The gender gap in politics isn't about abortion.

In the 2012 presidential election, women favored Obama and men favored Romney. The gender gap was around 9 points, which was roughly typical of gender gaps in presidential elections going back to 1980.

What drives differences in party voting between women and men? A common answer points to abortion rights. But when large surveys look at Americans’ views, we see something that is very often overlooked: Men and women don’t differ much on abortion rights and, when they do, women are a bit more likely than men to oppose legal abortion.

If we look at the U.S. General Social Survey over the past decade at voter’s views on whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape and whether abortion should be legal in cases where a woman is single and doesn’t want to marry, we get the results in the graph below. Abortion is certainly a women’s issue in a very tangible sense, but pro-choice attitudes aren’t more common among women than among men.

So what are the issues where women are more likely than men to be in line with Democrats? One is – unsurprisingly – on questions relating to women in the workplace. When voters are asked whether they think that, because of past discrimination, employers should preferentially hire and promote women, there’s generally around a 12-point gap between women and men.

Other issues that are particularly politically salient include questions about support for government programs aimed at the elderly, children, and the poor. On items measuring support for Social Security, healthcare spending, childcare spending, education, and poverty programs, there’s usually around an 8-point gender gap, with women more liberal than men.

In addition, women are generally more supportive of gun restrictions and more opposed to police battering citizens and capital punishment. Women are also more supportive than men of same-sex marriage.

Sometimes, though, women are more conservative than men. On questions relating to the legality of marijuana and pornography and the morality of premarital sex, women are about 12 points to the right of men.

On other issues, there’s really very little gender gap at all. These often include – in addition to abortion – issues relating to race, immigration, the environment, and military spending.

So why are women more likely than men to vote Democratic? It’s partly because they lean liberal on more issues than they lean conservative, but also partly because some of the issues on which they lean liberal (relating to gender discrimination and government spending on social programs) are bigger deals in party voting than the issues on which they lean conservative (relating to pot, porn, and premarital sex).

Really, though, the gender gap just isn’t very large either in voting or in issue opinions. In our recent book, we look at lots of other gaps – relating to race, religion, sexual orientation, sexual lifestyles, education, income, and so on – that are often much bigger deals.

So why is there so much talk about a War on Women?

Sometimes political campaigns face a thorny problem. They want to increase turnout among specific segments of the public that might not be well-liked by other important voting groups. If they make obvious appeals to these unpopular groups, they risk turning off as many voters as they might attract. What’s a campaign to do?

There’s a standard solution: Make your pitch to the folks you’re trying to get, but use a frame that’s more popular so other voters won’t get scared away. The people you’re trying to reach will get the message, and other voters might not notice who you’re really targeting.

The old Republican “Southern Strategy” was one example. It was framed around states’ rights (that sounds good) and anti-crime policies (that sounds good). But its target audience was white segregationists. The problem with making a straight pitch to white segregationists is that they weren’t very popular among the more educated business-oriented voters who Republicans also needed to woo.

On economic issues, both parties pitch policies primarily favored by either the unpopular poor or the unpopular rich within frames about the much-loved middle. Democrats sell their policies as ones helping the middle-class (that sounds good). Republicans sell their policies as ones to grow the economy and create jobs for everyone (that sounds good). There can be a grain of truth to both sides’ claims, but they’re mostly cover stories.

Another example is the Democratic frame for issues relating to abortion and birth control. These policies, according to the frame, are about supporting women. It’s a great frame – who doesn’t think we should support women?

But, as we saw earlier, it’s also a frame that, well, has only a very loose connection with empirical findings. In fact, looking at public opinion data, it’s clear that the big supporters of family planning are actually – I’m struggling to find a polite way to say this; OK, I give up – godless heathens with freewheeling lifestyles (both women and men). (Before my friends get too upset, I should point out that I’m one of these secular liberals. This discussion isn’t about being a good liberal, though; it’s about being an informed observer of public opinion and political narratives.)

The central fans of liberal policies on abortion and birth control typically include people who aren’t Christian, who don’t go to services regularly, who have had more sex partners, who go to bars, who have no children, and so on. The big conservatives on these issues typically include people who are Christians, who go to church weekly, who have had few sex partners, who avoid bars, who have children, and so on.

Democratic ads focusing on abortion and birth control are actually targeting the heathens (both women and men). There are lots of us, but, as I said, we’re not very popular, particularly with some other groups that are more likely to turn out to vote, including churchgoers, seniors, and married people with kids.

So what’s a campaign to do when they want to turn out unpopular voters? Give the pitch a widely popular frame. The conservative effort to limit family planning isn’t a War on Godless Partiers, after all. It’s a War on Women.

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