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Commentary: Still trying to figure out women - why they vote the way they do

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 26, 2012 - Freud asked “What do women want?” Today, pundits, pollsters and politicians try to discern if women voters differ from male voters.

Specifically, they wish to know if the Democratic edge among women voters can be sustained this year and whether the recent contretemps over birth control and abortion will affect women’s voting and help President Obama’s re-election. An examination of readily available data shows a "Yes, but."

The hot button issues of the day can affect electoral behavior; and gender is not the only demographic that weighs on differences. Location (region of the country or urban/suburban/rural) has an effect as do education, income, race and religion. People talking about today's polls must remember that there is always volatility in polling during contests, and any individual poll is just a snapshot in time.

That said, data from various exit polls over the years show that women tend to favor Democratic presidential candidates to a greater degree than male voters. A fact sheet from the Center for American Women and Politics, at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University illustrates the gender gap in percentage points. The advantage to the Democratic candidate has been clear: In 1984 it was 6 percentage points, in 1988 it was 7, in 1992 it was 4, in 1996 it was 11, in 2000 it was 10 percentage points, in 2004 it was 7 percentage points, as it was in 2008.

It should be noted that post election analysis showed that Reagan in 1984 and Bush in 1988 received a bare majority of the female vote but males chose those Republican candidates in larger numbers (as they did in all these contests).

The question is what might explain the differential.

The Center for American Women and Politics correlates the gap with certain issues. For example, polls in the 1990s found that women were more likely to favor aid to the needy and are less likely than men to prefer a smaller government. Women were more likely to favor guaranteed medical care, restrictions on firearms and the continuation of affirmative action. The center also cited polls showing that women were less likely to favor the use of military force.

Political scientist Karen Kaufmann also found evidence of a gender gap. Using polling from the George W. Bush presidency, she noted that women were more strongly opposed to the Iraq war than men and generally less supportive of the president. However, she noted that the gap was less pronounced in the South where women were more likely to be favorable to Bush.

A gender gap within party primary contests is more difficult to demarcate. Journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson reported that a higher proportion of women selected Obama in the 2008 Iowa caucuses but women voters favored Hillary Clinton in greater numbers in New Hampshire.

The recent Illinois Republican primary is a case in point. Rick Santorum, a well-known social conservative, received 37 percent of the women’s vote as opposed to 46 percent for Mitt Romney. However, Santorum only got 34 percent of the male vote while Romney received 46 percent. Here the gender gap favored the more conservative candidate. Income and education generated greater gaps than gender as did whether the voter classified himself or herself as an evangelical.

In looking toward November, the portents are not clear. In Politico, Byron Tau reported that women overwhelmingly back Democratic positions on birth control; 70 percent say it is an issue of women’s health. However, will that issue trump economic factors?

Mona Aarons offered an interesting caveat in the Huffington Post on March 20. She writes, “I’m not sure that married women in their 20s, 30s and 40s have been moved much by the contraceptive debate. Indeed, married women tend to be more traditional swing voters.” The younger cohorts did not experience the struggles their elders lived through.

Overall, we can say that the gender gap is likely to reoccur. Recent polls show that women are more approving of President Obama than men. A Gallup poll for the week of March 6-11 showed women at 51 percent approval of the president with men only at 45 percent. Similarly, a poll taken the week of March 17 had Obama leading Romney among women 55-38 percent. Among males, it was 45 percent for Obama and 43 percent for Romney.

We have seven months to go before the presidential election. Gender gaps that have een observed may not play a huge role in the end or may matter more in certain states than in others. Women are likely to be pulled by a number of identity factors when casting their ballots and certainly by the state of the economy.

Hopefully, further research and polling will continue to shed more light on the nature of the gap and whether reproductive issues impact it in a significant fashion.

Lana Stein is a political science professor emerita at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.