The Gender Gap in American Politics

Virtually every partisan divergence in the modern American political era has been analyzed under the microscope, especially since the election of Donald Trump. This is especially true when evaluating divergences along racial, regional, and education-based lines. Perhaps one of the more under-analyzed splits has been the difference in voting patterns between men and women; an analysis of elections from 1980 onwards shows that women are both more frequent voters than men are and significantly more Democratic as a group.

Why is this the case? With regards to voting propensity, some argue that women are more likely to vote than men due to women generally dealing more with “government” in their day-to-day lives: the feminization of poverty is a worldwide phenomenon, and middle and even upper-class women are more likely than men to be the primary caregivers of children and the elderly, engaging to a greater extent with teachers, health care workers, and government bureaucrats. 

That being said, it is equally likely that the biggest reason that women only began to vote more frequently than men in the 1980s is generational change. In essence, as noted in pieces by both FiveThirtyEight and The Atlantic, many women of the pre-war generations generally did not believe it was their job to vote, an attitude that dissipated in subsequent generations.

Around the time that this “generational shift” commenced, a gap in partisanship also began emerging, and it’s worth looking at why. Despite the fact it is now considered politically axiomatic that women vote more Democratic than men do, this split has really only materialized in the last forty years. Prior to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, there was not a significant gender gap in how men and women voted, since the two parties were closer together on high-salience gender issues, with the 1976 Republican platform even endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment. However, after the GOP lined up behind Ronald Reagan in 1980, a very wide partisan gap began to emerge between men and women.

From 1984, women have voted at a higher rate than men in every presidential election, and the gender gap between political parties has continued to widen since then. In 2016 for instance, 63% of eligible women said they cast ballots compared to 59% of men (Igielnik, Pew), and Catalist data shows women comprised a majority of the electorate in all of the last seven electoral cycles.

FiveThirtyEight has a good piece on the dynamics of this, and one key flashpoint therein is the Reagan GOP’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first written into the party platform at the 1980 Republican National Convention. With the GOP continuing to court the support of conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly over the next few years and adopting more conservative stances on issues that contemporary polling indicates are especially important to women, including social security and paid leave, it should come as no surprise to see that the gender gap emerged and has persisted.

As a result, since Reagan’s 1980 election, women have backed Democratic candidates at significantly higher rates than men, and exit polls indicate that this partisan gap has hit double digits in every presidential election from 1996 onwards.

The partisan lean of men and women relative to the nation from 1976 to 2020

Surprisingly, when examining the relative gaps between men and women after controlling for race and education, something else becomes clear: a large part of this increased divergence actually appears to be among voters of color. Both men and women of color drifted to the right between 2012 and 2020, but nonwhite men swung significantly further to the right than nonwhite women.

This becomes especially clear when examining the numbers from Catalist, a political data firm. White, college-educated men and women were the key demographic that swung heavily towards Democrats between 2012 and 2020, but the gains were virtually identical in magnitude. However, non-college white voters and voters of color swung against Democrats, and in each of these categories, men swung more than women did, with a significant discrepancy emerging among voters of color. While much has been written about how Donald Trump made significant gains among voters of color, it may be worth noting that he was much more likely to flip nonwhite men than women.

Partisan leans of different demographic groups, split by gender, in 2012/2020

However, just as important as the difference in partisanships and voting propensities between genders is the divergence in social attitudes. Unsurprisingly, the two are heavily correlated.

Social Issues

Despite Republicans controlling the presidency for all but 4 years from 1972 to 1992, Democrats often held one or both houses of Congress. However, in 1992, the Supreme Court took on Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which would have overturned Roe v. Wade, and due to now President Joe Biden rushing David Souter’s confirmation to the Supreme Court when he learned Souter was pro-choice before the Bush administration could pull it, Roe was upheld in a 5-4 vote. 

In 1992, Bill Clinton delineated the differences between the parties on abortion at the Democratic National Convention

And George Bush — George Bush won’t guarantee a woman’s right to choose. I will. Hear me now: I am not pro-abortion. I am pro-choice, strongly. I believe this difficult and painful decision should be left to the women of America. I hope the right to privacy can be protected and we will never again have to discuss this issue on political platforms. But I am old enough to remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade, and I do not want to return to the time when we made criminals of women and their doctors.

In the decades since, the differences between the parties on this issue have been crystal clear to most voters. While women don’t always vote on abortion, it is interesting to note how the issue’s relative salience influences vote choice and voting patterns, as exemplified by the following case studies.

In 2012, Barack Obama lost Missouri to Mitt Romney, only receiving 44.4% of the vote. However, incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill received 54.8% of the vote over Republican Todd Akin, due largely in part to Akin’s comments stating that victims of “legitimate rape” do not become pregnant, and therefore did not need abortions. 

In that election, as per the New York Times exit polls, McCaskill’s vote share was 7% higher among women (58%) than it was among men (51%). In the concurrent presidential election, Obama’s vote share was only 2% higher among women (45%) than men (43%). Akin’s comments on abortion quite clearly had an outsized effect on his standing with women, and it propelled McCaskill to a landslide victory.

Why did these comments hurt so much? Women have generally indicated that they support abortion being legal in all or more cases at a higher percentage than men, especially since the Republican Party’s socially conservative tilt became evident in the mid 2010s. Moreover, something notable is that in the wake of the 2022 Dobbs vs. Jackson decision, which overturned a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, there was a marked increase in the percentage of women who identified as pro-choice, and this increase wasn’t nearly as sharp among men. In general, it should not be a surprise that the group affected by a decision or proposal react the most sharply to it, and this probably explains both why Akin’s struggles were especially prominent with women and why the percentage of women self-identifying as pro-choice suddenly skyrocketed.

The 3-year weighted average of pro-choice identification by gender

In a similar vein, electoral evidence suggests that the consequences of Dobbs v. Jackson has had an outsized effect on mobilizing women voters. In the wake of the decision, Kansas put forth a ballot proposition on its August 2 primary ballot concerning amending the constitution to allow the Republican-dominated state legislature to impose additional restrictions on abortion. In a state where Donald Trump garnered 56.2% of the vote in 2020, 58.9% of voters essentially voted against restricting abortion. One datapoint in particular stood out: women accounted for 70% of new registrations in the state in between the Dobbs decision and the referendum itself, a discrepancy that political data firm TargetSmart had never seen before.

As per TargetSmart data, this gender discrepancy has been has been observed (albeit to lesser degrees) in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where abortion access has suddenly become a hot-button issue due to old, pre-Roe laws. The asymmetry in issue salience is also reflected in polling — in YouGov’s late-August national survey, 56% of women said that abortion was “extremely important” to them, while just 38% of men said the same.

In addition, women are also more socially liberal in general, even when looking at other issues. For instance, on gay marriage, data from the Pew Research Center suggests that since the turn of the 21st century, women have been more supportive of gay marriage than men have been. On racial justice protests, Civiqs suggests that while women support the Black Lives Matter movement by a 50-36 split, men oppose it by a 52-34 margin. In essence, women do appear to have more socially liberal attitudes on the whole, which correlates well with the partisan split we observe between men and women on abortion.

The data thus suggests that policy differences create a significant difference in voting patterns, propensity, and motivation along gender-based lines, driving changes in vote choice and frequency. And while the purpose of this piece is not centered around forecasting how the electorate will look in 2022, the partisanship and voting propensity gaps along gender lines will likely not be disappearing anytime soon if the current news cycle is any indication. If Democrats do retain control of either the House or the Senate after this cycle, they will almost certainly have high levels of support among women driving their victories.

I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.

Dhaaruni Sreenivas
%d bloggers like this: