It is little secret that the GOP has a female problem. Since 2010 when the GOP won the female vote 49%-48% they have struggled to appeal to the growing demographic. In 2012, Democrats, largely playing to their concerns, won women 55%-44% at the Presidential level. In Senate races across the country Democrats crushed Republicans among the group.
This cycle is shaping up to feature the same dynamic. According to the National Journal, the gender gap has ballooned to historic proportions in this year’s Senate battlegrounds. In many cases polls show the gap exceeds twenty points. Take the recent De Moines Register poll of the Iowa Senate race. Ernst led 55%-30% among men but lost women 46%-33% for a massive 38 point gender gap. A more recent PPP survey show a much closer gender divide of only seven points.
Still, there are other examples. Take North Carolina’s competitive Senate contest. Thom Tillis leads among men by as much as 14% in one survey. In most cases this would lead to a commanding victory but Senator Kay Hagan has held leads of over 20% among women. Her campaign’s main focus has largely been appealing to women on education and outside support for Hagan has hit Tillis on socially conservative legislation passed in 2013 and 2014.
Democratic attacks of this kind are not isolated instances. In Colorado, another battleground this cycle, Senator Mark Udall’s campaign has done virtually nothing else but hammer Gardner on social issues. In contrast, the Gardner campaign has hit Udall on supporting Obama, hiking taxes and insurance premiums, running a single issue campaign and most recently, being soft on terrorism.
These few examples help highlight why the gender gap is exploding this cycle. But it also has to do with more than just the way campaigns are being run and the issues involved. It also has to do with the type of female voter (and to a lesser extent male voter).
In exit polls since 2004, Republicans have consistently dominated among single and married white women and elderly women. In contrast, Democrats strengths can largely be attributed to massive advantages among single and young minority females.
Exit polls harkening back to 2004 have shown this trend accelerating. In 2004, exit polls showed Bush beating Kerry 56%-43% among white men and 55%-45% among white women. He lost non-white women to Kerry 18%-82%. But dig further down and you find Bush won married voters 59%-41% and lost single voters 62%-38%. In 2008, even as John McCain was being trounced nationally he managed to win men 49%-48%. He won white men 57%-41% and white women 53%-46% even as he lost women 56%-43% nationally. McCain managed to win married voters 52%-47% but lost singles 65%-33%.
In isolated cases in the 2010 election such as the Oregon gubernatorial race the gender gap was a massive 50 points. In the Colorado Senate race the gap was 31 points. The New Hampshire Senate race posted a 22 point divide.
This widening gender gap understandably has Republicans worried. Female voters make up a majority of the electorate in many states and Democrats have focused their turnout efforts on women. More importantly, they have focused on Democratic leaning female voters, single females and minorities.
Republicans have yet to come up with a compelling message to court these voters. At the national level the GOP has touted female recruits running for office. Senator Kelly Ayotte (NH) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA) in the House have often been put front and center to talk about issues pertinent to women. On the campaign trail Republicans have offered different messages.
In Colorado, Corey Gardner has focused on tamping down debate on social issues by supporting over the counter contraception. In Iowa, Jodi Ernst has based her campaign largely on the economy and how it hurts all voters. In yet another battleground, New Hampshire, Scott Brown has played up his moderate credentials on social issues (supports abortion). In each case we have seen mixed results.
But while Republicans are worried about where the female vote goes this cycle Democrats have reasons to worry about male voters. In the South, male voters tend to be far more Republican than the national average as do women. And just as Democrats are doing historically well among women this cycle the GOP is doing the same among men, particularly well-educated and high income men (the men that vote most often).
The widening gender gap this cycle has created a perplexing question for both candidates and the parties. How do Republican candidates appeal to women this cycle (particularly single and minority women)? How does the national GOP do it long-term? For Democratic candidates the question is how to appeal to male voters when their campaigns are largely seen as appealing solely to women’s issues? For the Democratic party the question is how do they tailor a message made for a majority-minority party be inclusive to men? Candidates will find out whether they succeeded or failed this November. But for the parties they will not find out if their solutions to these questions work for a long time to come.