Exit polls show that the 2016 election is on course to showcase one of the widest gender gaps in American political history. Whereas Donald Trump won men by 12 percent Hillary Clinton won women by a similarly large 12 percent. That creates a whopping 24 percent gender gap.
Of course that is at the national level. In individual Senate and Gubernatorial contests, the margins vary. But we have now seen in the last 4 elections Democrats do incredibly well with female voters. And they have been crushed in 3 of them. So the question must be asked whether Democrats do worse when the gender gap is larger?
Aggregate data in recent elections certainly suggests so. In 2012, Democrats drove up the gender gap to a whopping 19 percent but won a mere 2 Senate seats, a dozen house seats and of course the Presidency. This gender gap could arguably be attributed to the stupidity of individual GOP candidates as anything else though.
The 2014 election was a different story. Democratic candidates across the country tried to paint Republicans as extremists on the issue of abortion. It didn’t work. Indeed, one could easily argue it backfired miserably.
Take the case of Colorado’s 2014 Senate contest. Mark Udall coasted to election in 2008 on the coattails of Obama’s election. That year he won 60 percent of the female vote and 54 percent overall. In 2010, his Senate colleague Michael Bennett won election against a Tea Party challenger on the back of a 17 percent margin among women. So, it seemed to make sense for Udall to target female voters.
But, the way Udall did it made no sense. He seemed solely devoted to driving up his margins among women at the expense of everybody else. The best example of this would be an ad his campaign released arguing Corey Gardner (his GOP opponent) would ban condoms. This sole devotion to the female vote seemed to work. He won 54 percent of women. But he lost over 60 percent of men and the election.
In another contest, the Iowa Senate race, Congressman Bruce Braley attacked Republican state senator Joni Ernst on her support for banning partial birth abortion. He ran ads attacking her over it. The attacks barely made a dent as she won by 7 percent and almost carried the female vote.
Nationally, exit polls from 2014 showed Democrats won the female vote for the House with 52 percent. But the margin Republicans won among men, 58 percent, easily outweighed Democratic margins among women.
These recent examples showcase the danger Democrats face in focusing largely on winning the female vote. It can backfire. Men are not nearly as receptive as women to abortion related ads and debates. Further, focusing on these social issues can take candidates attentions away from issues ALL voters care about (the economy, jobs, healthcare, etc.).
Additionally, it oversimplifies the female electorate’s voting preferences. Gender may be somewhat indicative of a partisan leaning but it is not nearly as predictive as geography, race and age.
Democrats consistently win 18-29 year old women, single women and black, Latino and Asian women. For that matter they also win black, Latino and Asian men. Democrats real issue with men (and some women) is that they tend to be more blue-collar than women and more ideologically conservative. Moreover, the majority of men that vote are white men and Democrats have done horribly with this group.
Reflecting this struggle are similar Democratic problems among, married, white women. Take the case of this election. Donald Trump was viewed by most pundits and analysts as repugnant to all women. He was supposed to be the first GOP nominee in the modern era to lose white women. Instead, Trump won a majority of white women and actually won 45 percent of white women with college degrees.
These women in some respects reflect the partisan tendencies of their white, male counterparts. They want economic security, lower taxes and their children to be safe. The wedge issues of abortion, gay marriage and sexual rights have less salience to these women.
One should not expect the wedge issues that Democrats have hammered home for the last decade to go away. The party is simply too invested in them. But, after this and recent elections, Democrats need to realize that not all women are the same and driving up the gender gap does not automatically equal electoral success. Just as Mark Udall and more recently, Hillary Clinton.