News reports that deem a gender gap in polling noteworthy — with women as more Democratic and men as more Republican — are falling into a trap described by a journalistic cliché: They’re reporting when a dog bites a man.
That’s because it would be far more unusual — akin to a man biting a dog — for there not to be a gender gap in a federal statewide race.
First, as most readers surely know, there’s been a noticeable gender gap in presidential voting for the last 30 years. Chart 1 shows how men and women have voted going back to 1972, when the national exit poll started. Remarkably, men and women voted for Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in precisely the same proportions in 1976. The real gender gap started in 1980, when men preferred Ronald Reagan to a much greater extent than did women. Since then, women have regularly voted 6-10% more Democratic than men — or if you prefer, men have voted 6-10% more Republican than women.
What may not be so well known is how persistent this gender gap is in individual state-level presidential battles and also in Senate contests.
We went back and looked at hundreds of exit polls since 2004 in presidential and Senate races and found that 87.5% of statewide Senate and presidential races featured a clear gender gap, which on account of poll error we are defining as the Democratic candidate doing at least three net percentage points better with women than with men.
Of 273 state-level presidential and Senate polls we analyzed from 2004 through 2012, 239 showed the Democratic candidate doing significantly better among women than men. Another 27 had no gender gap, falling within plus-or-minus three net points. Then there were only seven where the Republican candidate actually did significantly better with women than they did with men.
Those seven contests were: George W. Bush in Missouri, Montana and Texas (2004 presidential); John McCain in Nebraska (2008 presidential); Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) in her 2006 reelection; Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in his 2006 reelection; and Cynthia Thielen (R-HI), who otherwise was trounced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in his 2006 reelection.
A good example of how the greater proportion of women in the electorate can swing an election is demonstrated nicely in Virginia’s 2006 Senate race: Jim Webb (D) won women 55%-45%, and George Allen (R) won men 55%-45%. According to the exit poll, women made up 51% of that year’s Senate electorate. Hence, Webb won by four tenths of a percentage point.