Why the Gender Gap Won’t Matter in This Election

All the talk notwithstanding, women don’t vote for Democrats in high enough numbers to offset male support for the GOP. Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post-Getty Images

You always know the Democrats are in big trouble when the media starts harping on the gender gap. This time it’s “gender gap near historic highs.” Repeat after me: so what? Even when that gap hit its historic high of 20 points, with Al Gore’s near miss in 2000, it didn’t actually put him in the White House. The discussion hit a low point when TV star Lena Dunham and a bunch of her math-challenged friends made a viral video this week off Lesley Gore’s pop classic “You Don’t Own Me” to convince women to support Obama. The video features a claim that “women were 60 percent of the voters” last time. If that were true, women might matter. But in fact women came in around 53 percent of voters in 2008. Maybe math is hard, but in elections, numbers matter.

Bulletin: Women don’t elect a president the guys don’t want. They simply don’t vote for the Democrat in high enough numbers to offset the testosterone tsunami for the GOP. Since the tide turned against them in 1968, Democrats have elected a president only when they were able to hold the male support for the Republican to roughly 50 percent. The same happened in 1992 and 2008, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama actually won (narrowly) among men. Even in 1996, when, arguably, women voted for Clinton and men did not, men supported Clinton by only 1 point less than his opponent, Bob Dole. In exit polls, that’s called the margin of error. Although Founding Father John Adams’s uppity wife, Abigail, told him he’d better include women in the new nation, they did not “foment a rebellion,” as she warned they would. It took them almost 150 years to get the vote, and for 60 years after that, they voted mostly the way their men did. In 1980—cue the trumpets—women voted more for the Democratic candidate than men did. There’s been a gender gap in every presidential election since. And it has meant as little as Abigail’s hollow threat.

A big part of the reason why the gender gap looks so much more promising for the Dems than it turns out to be is that 2 or more points of that advantage are actually attributable to race. African-American women vote in larger numbers than African-American men do; the women’s vote is simply blacker than the men’s. But the pundits have already counted the race advantage in their forecasts. So piling talk of the gender gap on top of race is, well, double dipping. In electoral terms, the only gender gap that matters is between white men and women, the largest segment of the actual electorate. In one of the latest big polls, Obama’s support among white women is down a couple of points since 2008, from 46 percent to 44 percent. But he’s down among white men by 9 percentage points, falling from 41 percent against John McCain to 32 percent against Mitt Romney. (A second, recent poll from AP denies any gap, but that appears to be a radical outlier at the moment.) It looks like a gender gap, all right, but not one that helps the president. Forget the ladies. If Obama can’t stanch the bleeding among white men, no Florence Nightingale is coming to bind up the wound.