What's Driving the Gender Gap Between Obama and Romney? It's the Economy, Stupid

By Bryce Covert

The blogosphere was abuzz last week after polling numbers from USA Today/Gallup came out showing Obama with a 18-point lead over Romney with women in swing states. Many leapt to the conclusion that the more than a month-long fracas over birth control - when and how it should be covered, as well as whether it is bad in the first place - has turned women off of the Republican platform. After all, virtually all women will use birth control at some point in their lives.
But in a forum on women's economic concerns on Friday, President Obama stated what has become a new campaign refrain of late: "Women are not some monolithic bloc. Women are not an interest group." And as he put it even more simply a few weeks back: "I'm not somebody who believes women will be single-issue voters." Indeed, he's right. Women care deeply about accessing contraception (sorry, Nikki Haley), but that's not the only issue they vote on - and it's not necessarily the main driver of the widening gender gap between Republicans and Democrats.

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The Obama-Romney gender gap?The Obama-Romney gender gap? Taking a deeper look at the poll showing such a strong lead among women, it is clear that birth control is important to them. By a 20-percentage-point margin, women voters are "significantly more likely than men to rate government policies relating to birth control as important," Gallup reports. Yet Democrats - the party women are more likely to identify with than men - still rate that issue behind a lot of others. Topping the list of issues that will be important to their votes, Dems listed the deficit first, followed by healthcare, defense, gas prices, and unemployment before getting to birth control. Lots of economic issues.
It's likely that the squabbling over contraception and reproductive rights has "really galvanized women," Celinda Lake, president of polling firm Lake Research Partners, told me. Unmarried women and younger women weren't even paying attention, yet their interest has jumped 20 points, she said. But now that the politicians on both sides have their attention, they don't like what they see when it comes to economic issues. It's "a question of priorities," Lake said. "These women feel that it's tough economic times out there, my family's in trouble, this country's in as big trouble as it's been in generations, young people having a very hard time, Rome is burning, and you're focused on my birth control?"

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Interestingly enough, economics, not so-called "social issues" like reproductive rights, has historically played a large role in the gender gap. A paper published ahead of the 2010 midterms by Paul M. Kellstedt, David A. M. Peterson, and Mark D. Ramirez took a hard look at what drives this trend. They found that, overall, good economic times make the public more likely to support higher taxes and welfare spending, but in economic downturns like ours the public moves to the right and drops its support for spending. Yet that breaks down when examined by sex. Women overall tend to support what the authors call "compassion issues" like welfare, education, and healthcare, and are therefore more supportive of increased social spending in bad times. The gender gap increases when domestic spending becomes more liberal because "[a] policy change that might be seen as too liberal for the average man might seem like the correct amount of spending to the average woman," the authors sate. Women are voting to increase economic support for those who most need it while men lose their appetite for spending in tough times.
Lake confirmed this research. "The biggest difference between men and women's attitude [in voting] is the role of the government and the importance of the social safety net," she said. The messaging that Republicans put forth over and over that we must get government out of the picture and let the private sector in doesn't appeal to women, she added. When it comes to Obama's policies, "Women tend to think he's much more in touch with their families and the middle class," she said. "They do think the government should be a partner… not just in the safety net but in getting the economy going."

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Mitt Romney with his wife, AnnMitt Romney with his wife, Ann Why would women be more supportive of spending on social programs? The authors of the study answer, "Men tend to be less economically vulnerable than women, and they are less pessimistic than women about the economy." Women know what it is to struggle to make ends meet, even in good times. Over 17 million women lived in poverty in 2010, the highest number in 17 years, and a startling 7.5 million lived in extreme poverty - with incomes below half of the federal poverty line - hitting another record. Even outside of poverty, they still make just 77 cents to a man's dollar for the same work, diminishing their ability to save and build wealth. Yet even with these difficult economic numbers, 40 percent of families rely on their earnings more than or equally with men's. They have first-hand knowledge of just how hard it is to get by at the lower end of our economy.
This is not to ignore the economic side of contraception, either. Women support co-pay free birth control because it has such a huge impact on their bottom lines - and their ability to work at all. But to say that women are fleeing the Republican Party based solely on this issue is to ignore the role the economy at large will have in the upcoming election. Women aren't single-issue voters, and if the GOP wants to woo some of them back, it'll have to take a hard look at a lot of its policy priorities.

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