Columns » Jay Barth

The GOP and the gender chasm

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A flurry of new public opinion polling reaffirms the anecdotal chatter from social events of the last several days that Americans' anger at their members of Congress is as intense as ever before and those who are Republicans are given special blame for the fiasco taking place in Washington. While utter hell for Republicans who happen to be on the ballot at the moment (a weak Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia appears to be waltzing to victory in that state's election next month), some of the political animus shown in this polling data is ephemeral. Once the budget and debt limit crises subside, as they must, political attitudes will recede to the polarized norm that is contemporary American politics. However, there is one trend from the polling that portends long term problems for a GOP that has an array of long term problems: the fact that American women are decidedly more concerned about the ramifications of the shutdown.

Given short shrift in the post-election analysis that focused on the continuing racial and ethnic diversification of the electorate was what happened with the gender gap in the 2012 election cycle. According to Gallup polling, the gender gap — significant since 1980 and consistently large since the 1996 Clinton/Dole race — passed another threshold with a record 20 percentage point gender gap emerging in 2012 according to Gallup polling. While Obama lost badly among men, a 12-point margin in the Democrat's favor among women drove a comfortable victory.

The gender gap is reasserting itself in the current political crisis. In this week's Washington Post-ABC News poll, the negative numbers for Republicans are driven by the fact that three in four women voters oppose the Republican tactics over the past weeks. Reporting shows that in internal GOP polls in advance of the shutdown in an effort to undermine Obamacare, even Republican-leaning women overwhelmingly opposed the idea by more than 30 points.

The gender gap in American politics is driven by any number of forces — party differences on issues of peace and war and reproductive choice, the comparative ability of candidates to frame issues in ways that resonate differently for women and men, and a not insignificant level of gender consciousness among American women. First and foremost, however, is women's elevated faith in government to aid in easing the challenges disproportionately faced by women (and for those who also are mothers, their children).

This government shutdown hits right at the heart of governmental efforts that aid the vulnerable in American society. From WIC feeding programs to Head Start early childhood programs to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to investigations of child neglect, such programs are either shuttered or threatened by the government shutdown. Showing the legacy of Bill Clinton in U.S. politics, Democrats have also been effective in framing the shutdown in terms of its human impact while Republicans have continually discussed it in terms of dollars and cents. For these reasons, women are decidedly more likely to view the shutdown as a "crisis" and for it to have lingering electoral impact with them. Three-quarters of women voters say the shutdown is causing major problems while only 57 percent of men do, according to a CNN poll this week.

Moreover, it's crucial to remember what was at the root of the government shutdown: the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. It is a law that represents one of the most important attacks on gender discrimination in history. Many of those policies — ranging from ending disparities in rates insurance companies charge women and men to requiring private employers to cover contraceptives as part of their insurance packages — are already in place. Moreover, the health care overhaul that will aid the uninsured has the power to stymy a fascinating but troubling trend in public health: the decline in female life expectancy in many parts of the country in the last generation. (This is a reality in 45 percent of American counties, including in over 50 of Arkansas's counties.) The popularity of Obamacare will rise with time and, all signs indicate, that it is with women (already more supportive of the law) that the rise will be most pronounced and permanent.

Despite the party's challenges with white men, the gender chasm created by the current governmental shenanigans creates a path to victory in the 2014 election cycle for Democrats. Even before the latest events, Arkansas Democrats knew that running up a margin with women is vital to winning close races for the U.S. Senate and governor in 2014. If they — and Democrats like them across the country — are able to succeed, we will look back at the last couple of weeks as the time when those dynamics were rooted.

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