The Vanishing Male Voter

Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have helped draw unprecedented attention to female voters this year. But what will men do at the ballot box on Nov. 4? And how many of them will bother to show up at all?

Over the last 40 years, some 16 million men—a population roughly the size of Michigan and Indiana combined—have stopped pulling the lever. That's a hole five times the size of George W. Bush's margin of victory in 2004. How did it get so bad? Since 1964, when a record 72 percent of voting-age men and 67 percent of voting-age women pulled the lever for president, participation rates have tumbled for both sexes—but far more steeply for men. By 1980, civics-class dropouts had flipped the gender gap. And this November, men are again the odds-on favorites to no-show at the polls.

"Unless there is an astonishing reversal of a 30-year trend," says New York University professor Rogan Kersh, an expert on voting patterns, "far fewer men than women will show up this year, both in real terms and a percentage of their gender."

Other social scientists echo Kersh, although the exact date that men fell behind differs according to how one does the counting. Data that includes all residents over age 18 finds the pivotal year to have been 1980, while figures that exclude felons and legal immigrants—groups that are disproportionately male—date it to 2004. Both formulas reveal curdling male involvement over time. "It's been a gradual but persistent separation," says Harvard University's Thomas Patterson, author of "The Vanishing Voter."

Some politicos say that the Democratic Party has suffered the most from the male malaise, since its base of white working-class men has been eroding. But the shift cuts against the GOP, too. Strong female majorities and subpar male turnout helped elect Bill Clinton to two terms. This election, the missing male vote could sink McCain, whose choice of Palin as a running mate may end up backfiring. A Pew poll late last month found that 53 percent of men have a favorable opinion of Palin—4 points higher than women. Meanwhile, Barack Obama is going where the boys are: his campaign has bought ad space on virtual billboards in videogames like John Madden Football, NBA Live and Grand Theft Auto.

Apathy, anger and inattentiveness have all contributed to a decline in voting among both genders. But some factors are almost exclusively a guy thing.

Take death. Men are, simply, more likely to be dead come Election Day. Compared to woman, men die young (in car crashes, in combat) and have a shorter life expectancy: 75 years on average for American men, compared to 80 for women. That has long given women an edge in the sheer number of eligible voters, which has helped them surge past men in total votes. In 1964, for instance, 1.7 million more woman than men voted. By 2004, that margin had spread to nearly 9 million. Mortality rates also give female voters a boost over men proportionally, since elderly Americans are the most active voting bloc—and the majority are women.

Another factor: men tend to be loners. They are less likely than women to attend church, consume news, trust authority and believe that people are generally good, according to the University of Michigan's General Social Survey, a semiannual tracking of attitudes and behaviors.

Another factor: education and employment. Graduating from college is one of the top predictors of voting, and increasingly men are falling behind their female counterparts. Over the last half century, male enrollment has dropped below that of women at the undergraduate level, falling from two thirds of the national student body in 1958 to less than half—43 percent—today. Even if men do have the same education as women, they aren't necessarily as likely to hit the polls. Consumed by economic anxiety and longer work hours (the top fifth of male earners have seen their work days grow a staggering 80 percent since 1980, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano) today's Company Men may not make voting a priority. "The added work hours may have sapped time and energy for civic participation," says New York University sociologist Dalton Conley, author of the forthcoming book "Elsewhere, USA," which unpacks the social and economic roots of our preoccupation with work.

Other men may have more time on their hands than they want. Of the roughly 5.3 million convicted felons barred from voting in this country, more than 80 percent are men, says Erica Wood, deputy director of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice. That number has steadily swelled since the 1980s, adds University of California, San Diego, political scientist and statistician Samuel Popkin, who explains the male voting problem simply: "Men go to jail."

The remaining 12 million men—the nonfelons—who still aren't voting at the rate their fathers did might just be stubborn. "Men tend to view voting as a choice," says Lyn Ragsdale, a political scientist at Rice University who is working on a book about nonvoters. Fortunately there is hope for the nonvoting male: women. In recent years, women have upended the conventional wisdom that they follow their husbands on Election Day—an idea once so entrenched that in the 1930s poll-master George Gallup didn't even bother canvassing women on their political choices. (He once remarked: "How will women vote on Election Day? Just as exactly as they were told the night before.") Today, married men are not only more likely to vote than their single counterparts, but, according to sociologist Michael Kimmel, they are likely to be swayed by their wife's choice at the voting booth. Smart move.