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Why “gender gap” analysis of American politics is mostly wrong

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks to voters at a town hall meeting.
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks to voters at a town hall meeting.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Recently, Benghazi and Ben Carson have pushed gender politics to the side of 2016 coverage. But with Hillary Clinton calling sexism on Bernie Sanders, and Carly Fiorina taking the debate stage again Wednesday, gender politics is back. We will now be treated to another round of political analysts framing gender issues as a "gap" in how men and women vote. After the second GOP debate, for example, political scientist Melissa Deckman asked, over at the Monkey Cage, whether Fiorina's candidacy will "help the GOP close the gender gap," and answered, "Probably not."

At that level of generality, Deckman is right. But the "gender gap" lens — which has been with us for decades — misses a fundamental shift in how American politics is gendered and omits some of the key concerns that move women voters.

The frame of a gender gap suggests there is some other gender that votes more evenly for Republicans and Democrats, and Deckman cites a 2014 survey saying only a quarter of women identify as Republican. But the relevant factor is, rather, who votes and for whom. Those numbers tell a different story. The same survey found men 10 points more likely to vote for a GOP candidate, and women 12 points more likely to support a Democratic candidate.

There's your gap, right?

Not so fast. Two trends over the past decade — increasing acceptance of women as political leaders, and heightened polarization along ideological lines — have resulted in an electorate that is divided far more by ideological identification than by gender. With a few important exceptions, male and female liberals, and male and female conservatives, think and vote more like one another than like their gender mates across the aisle.

For example: Pew polling on women and leadership found Democrats, male and female, were more likely to rate women higher than men on key leadership qualities; Republicans, male and female, were more likely to rate the sexes equally.

As scholars and practitioners both know well, the parties face two different electorates. Republicans have recently dominated the midterm electorate, which is more male, and its female voters, like its male voters, are older and whiter. In 2014, Republicans won men by 16 points and lost women by 4. The results from 2012, a presidential year, are almost a mirror: Obama won women by 12 points and lost men by 8.

So the GOP has men — white men, in particular. It also has married women, especially white women. It doesn't need to "close the gender gap." It must, however, retain new generations of white married women while choosing among longer-term strategies — either maximizing the white vote or picking off significant subgroups of the minority vote.

Far from aiming to "ditch the GOP's image as just for stodgy white men" as Deckman suggests, Fiorina's campaign is pointed squarely at stodgy white men and the women who love them. She launched her campaign as the party's designated Clinton foil — taking on the Democratic frontrunner more bluntly to save her male colleagues from the Rick Lazio trap. She also turned out to be a terrific Trump foil.

Fiorina is implementing the playbook that a small band of GOP consultants — who happen to be women — have been developing and urging on the party for several cycles now. They repudiate the idea put forward by Deckman and many others that GOP positions are out of touch with women "on the issues that will likely dominate the next election."

Instead, the GOP strategists noted, women across the board rate security and economic issues highly. Conservative women rate those issues higher than "women's issues."

So in 2012, when more progressive-leaning women came out to vote, "war on women" rhetoric and focus on "women's issues" — plus some incredible blunders by male GOP candidates — helped energize women to vote for Obama. Democrats tried a similar line in 2014. But fewer women voters turn out in off-year elections, and those who do are older, whiter, and more likely to be GOP-identified. Indeed, women voters told pollsters they were more concerned about the economy, security, and health care and simply didn't believe their reproductive rights were at stake.

Clinton and Sanders will go on arguing over their records and attitudes on "women's issues" because evidence is strong that their primary voters care intensely. In a general election, either would have to keep base voters highly energized on gender issues while reaching out to pluck undecided voters on economic and security concerns.

The GOP nominee will face something of the inverse challenge — convincing swing women that s/he is better on economic and security concerns but not hopelessly out of step on women's place in a modern society.

That's where Fiorina comes in. Wednesday night she will highlight her private sector credentials and her plans for economic growth, not a specifically female attitude toward the economy. By manifesting two X chromosomes but talking only about neutral or masculine-gendered issues, she stakes a GOP claim on a space that Clinton had hoped to have to herself.

That strategy worked well in the second debate, and Fiorina's numbers went up. But with Trump and Carson's numbers rising, and Sanders giving Clinton an unexpected race among women and men, it's safe to say that the important gap is not between male and female voting preferences but between pundits' predictions and voter behavior. And for once, no one can tell what men want in the voting booth either.