Politics & Policy

The Political-Knowledge Gender Gap

Polling place in Dover, N.H., in 2008. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
The public overall is poorly informed about politics, but male voters tend to know more than female voters.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the June 17, 1996, issue of National Review magazine. We are bringing this piece out from the archives in remembrance of Kate O’Beirne, the former Washington Editor of National Review.

As the world knows, women’s overwhelming support for President Clinton has put Bob Dole on the wrong side of a serious gender gap. Clinton leads among women by 20 points and believes their support is crucial to his re-election. The Dole campaign is determined to narrow the gulch. But because women tend to be inattentive and uninformed about politics, in courting women voters Clinton and Dole must woo the indifferent — a clear advantage for our President.

Since the 1940s, studies have consistently found that the public in general is poorly informed about politics and public policy. In their newly published book, What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters, political scientists Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter find that, despite higher education and income levels and the explosion in information services, the public’s knowledge has not increased over the decades. The authors provide exhaustive evidence of how ill-informed the typical American is.

Less than half the public can define either conservative or liberal with any degree of accuracy; less than half know the length of a House member’s term; only between a quarter and half can identify the decisions reached in Roe v. Wade or Miranda v. Arizona. Over the fifty years of survey items examined, only two positions of public officials could be identified by over 75 per cent of the public. The New Deal? LBJ’s Great Society? No. The winners were Bill Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and George Bush’s disclosure that he hates broccoli.

But some voters do know more than others. Republicans are better informed than Democrats, for example. And political ignorance discriminates by sex, too. Three-quarters of women score well below the male average on tests measuring knowledge of national politics. This particular gender gap is at least fifty years old, and it exists between men and women of equal education and income levels.

Women’s lack of knowledge is in part due to their lack of interest in politics. According to the National Opinion Research Center, 53 percent of college-educated men under the age of 30 read a newspaper daily, compared to only 34 per cent of their female counterparts. And the gap opens at an early age. A national survey of schoolchildren found that boys are significantly more knowledgeable about politics than girls, even after controlling for background and curriculum. Quite simply, it may not be in women’s nature to care very much about politics. (Sorry, Gloria.)

Research shows that from an early age, girls are less interested in the rules of the game and in notions of abstract justice. They are more interested than boys in personal, immediate topics and in reaching consensus.

Significantly, there is no gender gap in knowledge of local politics. Indeed, women frequently know more than men about it. Why? Delli Garpini and Keeter point out that state and local politics involve issues that are more tangible, immediate, and personal. Although parents with children at home know less about politics in general, that is not true of local issues such as the public schools, which have a particular relevance to them. Women especially are more likely to know who’s running the schools. On issues further from home, their opinions are frequently uninformed.

Polls suggest that women are more concerned than men about the poor, the federal safety net, and the national commitment to education. But they are not nearly as knowledgeable as men on these issues they claim to care about. Men are far more likely to know the size of the national budget, the unemployment rate, and the level of federal education spending. If women were, shall I say, a bit more frank, the “don’t know enough to have an opinion” category on polls would expand dramatically. If NOW does ever set up the national third party it periodically threatens, perhaps it could resurrect an old party name — the Know Nothings.

Better informed individuals vote more effectively. Professor Delli Carpini says that the policy opinions of the most informed voters almost perfectly match their electoral choices. But among the least informed, there “is virtually no relationship” between the issues they say matter to them and how they vote. So when women express conservative opinions on crime and welfare, a fair number won’t be informed enough to translate their positions into support for a candidate who agrees with them.

Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notes that women are “a lagging indicator on most issues because they are not as attentive as men to many current events.” So the formidable challenge for Clinton and Dole is to catch the attention of women. It’s not easy, but stories with a personal and emotional edge, rather than an abstract point, can do it. Surveys show that women were far more interested than men in the O.J. trial. Tonya Harding’s adventures also engaged the interest of women. Presumably, not even a desperate Dole campaign would want to see Liddy kneecap Hillary. But they must try something dramatic to catch up with a President who has a huge advantage with inattentive women voters.

Delli Carpini says that “the incumbent advantage works particularly well with less informed voters.” He explains that it’s tough to run an issues campaign for their benefit, so personality and style become critical. (Uh oh.) Even the simplest political information isn’t easily communicated to a large number of people.

Bob Dole has played a dominant role on the national scene for the past two years, yet a majority of Americans still don’t know that he served in World War II. Bob Dole might want to accessorize that new baby-blue blazer with his veteran’s overseas cap; women are bound to notice wardrobe changes. And Delli Carpini thinks it could help if Dole emphasized the tangible, local effects of the GOP’s devolution agenda. But if all else fails, maybe Trent Lott could push through a quick repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment.

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