It is no exaggeration to say that Republican politicians and strategists are obsessed with the gender gap. Unfortunately, they almost never think clearly about it.
For decades, American women have been more likely to vote for Democrats than men have been in almost every election. It follows that in almost all competitive races, most men pick the Republican candidate and most women the Democratic one. This year’s elections are following that pattern.
In late September, a CNN poll had Democrat Kay Hagan three points ahead of Republican Thom Tillis in the North Carolina Senate race. He was up four points among men, while she was up nine points among women. Around the same time, a Fox News poll had the Iowa Senate race tied, with men backing the Republican candidate by eight points and women the Democratic one by the same margin.
Democrats look at that pattern and conclude that they need to hit “women’s issues” hard both to raise their percentage of female votes and to boost female turnout. Mark Udall, the Democratic senator from Colorado, has spent half of his ad money so far portraying his Republican challenger, Representative Cory Gardner, as an opponent of contraception. Hillary Clinton, speaking in Iowa, has put a feminist twist on the liberal economic agenda: Women, she said, hold most minimum-wage jobs, which on her telling made the Republican position on wage regulation especially harmful and the Democratic position especially helpful to women.
Republicans look at the same pattern and conclude that they have a problem with women that they desperately need to address. They have adopted several strategies toward that end over the years. Some Republican candidates run soft-focus ads emphasizing their humanity and compassion. Some Republican strategists counsel the candidates to downplay their opposition to abortion. Other Republicans say the party should make the case that its policies are better for women than Democratic policies are. Mitt Romney often pointed out during the 2012 campaign how many jobs women had lost under President Obama.
Republicans are taking all of these steps this year, and taking others too. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and a Republican candidate for the Senate from California in 2010, has started a new group to make the party’s case to women. Several Senate candidates are saying that they think the Food and Drug Administration should reclassify oral contraception to make it available without a prescription.
Some of these steps might help the Republican party win elections. If they do, though, it is probably not going to be because they shrink the gender gap. The Republican party has a distinctive problem with female voters, but it is one that it cannot and does not need to solve.
That problem has nothing to do with abortion. It has been easy to link the gender gap and abortion, in part because the gap took on its modern dimensions around the same time the parties adopted their current positions on the issue, around 1980. Yet polling that asks people their views on abortion policy or whether they consider themselves “pro-choice” or “pro-life” finds no consistent difference between the sexes, and what differences it finds are small. Earlier this year, Gallup found that 38 percent of men and 41 percent of women think abortion should be legal in “all” or “most” circumstances, while 58 percent of men and 57 percent of women think it should be legal in “only a few” or no circumstances. In contrast, there are large and consistent differences between the married and the single, and between the religious and the irreligious, on abortion-related issues. (The differences are the ones you’d expect.)
Pro-choice Republican candidates have roughly the same gender gap that pro-life ones do. In 2010, a pro-choice Republican candidate for governor won 57 percent of men and 49 percent of women in Nevada; at the same time, a pro-life Republican candidate for governor won 57 percent of men and 48 percent of women in Wisconsin.
In 2012, two Republican Senate candidates stated their opposition to abortion in cases of rape. Most voters disagreed with that position and many found the way they expressed it offensive. Yet they ended up having slightly smaller gender gaps than some less controversial Republicans running that year. Their remarks, that is, seem to have turned off men and women roughly equally.
Female Republican candidates do not seem to do better than their male colleagues, either. In 2010, Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey were the Republican Senate candidates in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, respectively. Both had ten-point gender gaps. Fiorina had an eight-point gap, equal to that of Wisconsin Republican Senate candidate Ron Johnson, on that same Election Day.
The causes of the gender gap are more likely to be found in other issues. Polling has for many years consistently found that women are more supportive than men of social-welfare spending, economic regulation, and gun control, and less supportive of military action. In August, for example, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that the gender gap on raising the minimum wage was in the double digits, with women more supportive. These issues provide an alternative explanation of why the gender gap opened up around 1980: The parties became more divided on size-of-government questions then, too.
The political difference between the sexes is small but persistent and pervasive. Some subgroups of women generally fall on the conservative side of policy questions but are generally less conservative than the equivalent subgroups of men. Romney won 53 percent of married women and 56 percent of white women, for example, but 60 percent of married men and 62 percent of white men.
Whether they are winning or losing, male or female, pro-life or pro-choice, Republican candidates win a larger percentage of male than female votes. Republican candidates who win do not consistently have larger or smaller gender gaps than the ones who lose. The winning candidates, that is, do not tend to be ones who have a particular appeal to women. Compared with the losers, they have higher support among both men and women. George W. Bush did four points better among women in 2004 than Romney did in 2012, but he also did three points better among men.
Republicans were pleased to see a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that showed them only one point behind Democrats when women were asked which party’s candidate they intended to support in congressional elections. Men were as usual more Republican, by seven points. The gap in 2006, a Democratic landslide year, was four points; in 2010, a Republican landslide year, it was six. Republicans seem to be doing pretty well this year because of increased support from men and women alike, not because they have shrunk the gender gap.
These data suggest that Republicans are thinking about their problems the wrong way. To win the presidency in 2016, they need more women to support them than they got in 2012 or 2008: On that point, the conventional wisdom is obviously correct. But they don’t need more women any more than they need more men, and there is no reason to think that they have better opportunities to make gains among women than among men. The case that Republicans need to take steps that are specifically designed to win the support of a lot more women is a much weaker one than is generally assumed.
That doesn’t mean that everything done in the name of shrinking the gender gap is a bad idea. Neither men nor women, in general, prefer candidates to crusade on abortion, so the advice to downplay the issue is not wholly mistaken (although candidates sometimes err in thinking they can avoid it altogether). Humanizing ads have their place. Men are consistently more risk-tolerant than women; if Republicans had an economic message that made the case that free markets and limited government can provide security and not just risk, it would probably help them with both sexes but perhaps a bit more with women.
It is hard to see a political downside to the new Republican tactic of calling for a relaxation of the regulations on oral contraception. Access to contraception may not be as powerful an issue as Democrats hope and Republicans fear: The political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found no correlation between polls of the presidential race in 2012 and the amount of attention being given to contraception and abortion in the news. But the Democrats seem to be vindicating the Republicans’ tactic by their response to it. They say that ending the requirement of a prescription is no substitute for forcing employers to cover contraceptives at no marginal cost to their employees, something the Obama administration has done and Republicans mostly oppose. Whether or not Republicans win that policy debate, the Democrats are being frustrated in their attempt to portray Republicans as hostile to contraception, and women.
The Colorado Senate race between Udall and Gardner, where contraception has become one of the top issues, could be the most important one this fall. It will be a test of whether the Republican party can compete in states that went twice for Obama. (Most of the competitive Senate races this year are in states that reliably vote for Republican presidential candidates.) Its rising Hispanic population makes it an important sign about the future, too. And if Republicans win there after renewed Democratic accusations that they are waging a “war on women,” perhaps they will be a little less spooked by the gender gap — and more focused on doing what it takes to build their baseline level of support among men and women alike.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. This article appears in the October 20, 2014, issue of National Review.