In 2008 the gender gap in American elections continued to showcase itself. As Barack Obama was trouncing John McCain among women 56%-43%, he was losing men 49%-48%. And as Obama was winning over 70% of the unmarried female vote John McCain was winning well over 50% of the married women vote. It is obvious that without the strong support Obama received among women, particularly unmarried women, he would have lost the election.
The gender gap in voting is said to have started in the 1980s. It is more likely though this is when it was first noticed with new tools for exit polling becoming available. That year Reagan ran ahead with men than he did with women. Ditto in 1984. In 1988 this trend only accelerated with H.W. doing better among men. This trend has continued well into the new millennium and it has a decidedly partisan bent.
The only time in the last seven presidential elections this partisan bent could be said to be broken was when Clinton came close to carrying the male and female votes in 92 and 96. Up until that point the GOP had dominated among the male vote for three straight presidential elections. In 2000 this partisan bent came back with a vengeance when Presidential winner George Bush carried the male vote 53%-42% but Gore won the female vote 54%-43%. By comparison in 92 Clinton narrowly lost the male vote as he did in 96. Yet in 92 Clinton trounced HW among women and in 96 this trend was even more pronounced. That year Clinton was the first Democrat to carry the married female vote since Carter in 76.
The gender gap in voting however does not just include the differences between men and women. It also includes the differences within women, particularly in regard to their maritial status. According to the 2010 Census the number of unmarried women has risen to 20.9% of the total population. The median age of marriage has also risen to over 27 years (men and women averaged). And for the first time in US history less than half the US population is reported to be married at 48% of households. This bodes well for Democrats, not so much for Republicans in 2012.
The very issues the Democrats stand for, equal rights, wage equality, income inequality, job security, education, choice are tailor-made to appeal to single women with/without children. The issues the GOP speaks to of fiscal security, family values and economic prosperity speak to married women. And here we come into the gap with the female vote. As the percentage of single, unmarried women with an education has risen in the US so has the Democrats vote share among the group. The exceptions to this would be 2004 and 2010 when Republicans ran strongly among women.
But even as the GOP was narrowly winning the female vote (for the first time since 2002) in 2010 they continued to underperform among unmarried, single females with and without children. Democrats certainly did not get the numbers they received from the group in 2008 but they continued to get over 50% of their vote. Meanwhile, married women overwhelmingly backed GOP candidates nationally. The one consolation for the GOP was they did win approximately half of the single, white female vote.
However, if there ever was a race in 2010 that highlighted the gender gap it would be the CO Senate race. There a Tea Party Republican was running against a weak incumbent Democratic Senator. For most of the race the Republican led but near the end of the race Senator Michael Bennett (D-CO) unleashed his secret weapon. A barrage of ads were launched targeting women’s issues, contraception, abortion, and the like. In the end Buck won men with well over 50% but Bennett strongly overperformed among women 56%-39% (compared to Dems getting 48% nationally) and narrowly won election. Not surprisingly, Bennett ran strongest in metro Denver where many single women are located.
It has been written that Democrats went overboard in 2009-2010, passing legislation that was so “Mommy” orientated it turned off single, female voters because it failed to address the economy. Certainly to a degree that is true. And certainly it helps explain why the married, female vote went so solidly to the GOP. But the malaise among single, unmarried women was a warning shot across the bow to Democrats that they needed to return to speaking specifically to their issues. Healthcare and energy are great and all, but it is not what educated, single women care most about.
Democrats seem to have taken those lessons to heart. Nor have they been blind to the Census findings which show that married women are shrinking as a percentage of the populace. While unmarried men with/without a college degree continue to be a swing vote the single female vote remains Democrat. The question is in what kind of numbers?
Since the 2010 drubbing the Democrats message has been crafted to specifically appeal to single women. During the budget debate in Summer 2011 several prominent Democratic Congresswomen were front and center lamenting the cuts made in vital women’s services. More recently Democrats crucified Komen for cutting funding to Planned Parenthood. And most recently Democrats have painted their assault ( I use the word on purpose) on religious institutions regarding the mandate on contraception as a women’s health issue. It is no wonder why they would.
As the 2012 election moves closer Democrats have made these moves to appeal to a growing segment of the electorate. The president’s and Democrats recent bounce back in the polls appears to largely have come from new-found support among women, especially independent women (of which many single women identify themselves as). Democrats need to keep these women as men continue to remain cool to the president.
Moving beyond 2012 however the Democrats may find a continuing obstacle in appealing to this group. The single, female vote is by its very nature not growing. Many single women with children only have one or two and many more single women have no children. Furthermore they are waiting even longer than the rest of the populace to have kids. Meanwhile, married women continue to have children and in greater numbers. It is noticeable that the areas of the country with the largest single female vote are in major metro areas (meaning they help more in presidential and Senate than Congressional races) with the least growth while the major metro areas with the most married women and population growth are Republican (think South and Western cities such as Salt Lake).
One other little tidbit the Census points to that spells trouble for this being a continuing crucial bloc in the Democratic coalition is that many single women continue to aspire to be married, live in suburbs and have children. If the Democrats speak to their issues now, when they have one or no kids, how will it speak to them when they get married, live in the suburbs and raise kids? As life and experiences change they alter political views. What may have been a key issue for a single women could be pushed to the backburner once married. For Democrats this spells trouble beyond 2012.