Columns » Jay Barth

Doubling up the gender gaps

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Being an inlander, everything I know about surfing comes from William Finnegan's award-winning (but overly detailed) surfing memoir, "Barbarian Days," and a hiking buddy who grew up on a California surfboard. I have picked up that when two big waves come together, they can create a double-up wave; physics means that an extra potent wave is created by the combination of the two.

Similarly, national Democrats who are focused on retaking control of the U.S. House of Representatives are banking on not one, but two gender gaps to propel them to control of that body. If both happen at rates suggested by much of the recent "generic ballot" polling, it could produce a win of fairly unprecedent size for Democrats; if either gap fails to fully emerge, Democrats could be sitting on a surfboard without a wave to ride.

Until the 1980 elections, male and female voters tended to vote similarly in national races in the U.S. In that year — Ronald Reagan's entrance onto the national political scene — a significant gender gap emerged, creating a flurry of political science research trying to explain the phenomenon. The 1996 Clinton/Dole race saw a jolt upward in the gender gap and it has consistently been in double digits since in presidential elections, with 2016 matching the record gap from 20 years previous. While present, the partisan gap in voting tends to shrink somewhat in nonpresidential election cycles. All signs are, however, that this is about to change in 2018. The most recent Quinnipiac Poll, for instance, showed a 14-point overall margin for Democrats in the so-called generic ballot: Although Democrats were only marginally ahead among men, they led this ballot by 20 points (55 percent to 35 percent) among women respondents. While it takes both men and women to create a gender gap, most of the divergence is created by the thoroughly negative reactions by women to President Trump and his political party. A distinctive driver of the gender gap is the degree to which Trump's brand of governing is repelling independent women. While we are just getting our first surveys taken after the culmination of the thoroughly gendered battle over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, all signs are that the gap has only grown as a result of those events.

There is a second gender gap in voting, however. During the past generation, women have also turned out at slightly higher rates than their male peers. In nonpresidential years, this turnout gap has been consistently around 2 percent. (In presidential years, the turnout gap tends to be a little higher, peaking at just over 4 percent in 2008.) While less consistent than the partisan gender gap, polling has generally shown women among the groups most fully engaged in the news of the election cycle and the possibility of voting next month. The key to this second gender gap is likely the degree to which women under 30, one of the groups most deeply antagonistic to President Trump, turn out to vote.

Around the country, we see candidates working to take advantage of a doubled-up gender gap through gendering of their campaigns. In some cases, of course, these are some of the record number of female candidates, driven by their distinctive perspectives as women. Indeed, many of the most powerful ads of the season (such as Texas congressional candidate M.J. Heger's "Doors" ad) emanate from these campaigns. But we see other campaigns across the nation gendering their campaigns to take advantage of these electoral dynamics.

A particularly good example can be seen on the airwaves in the Little Rock media market where 2nd District Democratic candidate and state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) has gone all in on a distinctly woman-centered campaign. While Tucker's commitment to protect health care has been the substantive lead of his messaging, the messengers have been women in his lives discussing Tucker's dedication on issues (some of which that do have a gendered element). Increasingly the star of the show as a messenger is Tucker's 97-year-old grandmother Kathryn Bost. They are strong, positive ads, but they are also ads with an identifiable audience: women of all ages. It's a smart strategy for Tucker. The odds remain against him, but if the double-up arrives, it may be just enough to get him over the tipping point in the purplish-red 2nd District.

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