The term “gender gap” has a clinical sound to it, like it’s an intrinsic condition of our politics. But it did not always exist, and with each recent election cycle, it has become more extreme.
If we look more closely at it, the gender gap probably deserves another name: It’s the white male gap. Or the white male problem.
Think about what the political map would look like if just white men voted.
We’d have a Senator Roy Moore representing Alabama, where 72 percent of the state’s white male voters (and 63 percent of the white women) cast their ballot for a man who was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl — and who faced sexual misconduct allegations from multiple other women related to incidents they said occurred when they were underage. (He has denied the accusations.)
We’d likely have a Senator David Duke from Louisiana. The entire U.S. Senate would look far different — with Democratic senators from just a handful of the bluest states. And there would never have been a President Barack Obama.
Polls in advance of Nov. 3 reveal a huge gender divide. The electorate as a whole seems ready to cast out President Trump by a big margin. But not men. The most recent poll by The New York Times and Siena College shows 48 percent of men backing the re-election of Mr. Trump, compared to 42 percent backing Joe Biden. For women, it’s 35 percent for Mr. Trump, and 58 percent for Mr. Biden.
Broken down by race, the latest poll from Pew Research has Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden among white men by a 12-percentage-point margin — 53 percent to 41 percent.
Why do men and women, even some living under the same roof, have such divergent views on what issues matter and what people are fit to be our leaders?
The U.S. gender gap has been the subject of a trove of academic research. The findings, generally, are not flattering to men. Women tend to cast votes based on what they perceive as the overall benefit to the nation and their communities. Men are more self-interested.
Certainly, there are many men (and women) attracted to Mr. Trump’s racist, nativist and misogynistic rhetoric. For others, though, the choice is more nuanced.
There’s a word that political scientists use — “salience” — that applies. It’s a way of framing what issues matter most to voters. A male and female partner in a marriage may both have been disgusted by Mr. Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment. Neither liked his policy that separated migrant families at the border and put children in cages. Both think he bungled the coronavirus response.
But these issues are not equally salient for them. The man cares; he just doesn’t care as much. His main concern is more likely to be the balance in his 401(k) account.
“Women think about government in terms of the well-being of the country,” says Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College in Maryland who has written extensively on the gender gap. “Men are much more likely to think about it in terms of their wallet. Their bottom line is, how does this affect me?”
When Ronald Reagan defeated the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, in the 1980 presidential election, exit polls showed that women favored him by a slim 2-percentage-point margin but that he won the male vote 55 to 36 percent. The last time the gender gap was that big was the 1950s, but at that point — and traditionally — it was women who were the more conservative voters, which was largely attributed to their greater religiosity.
Polling is consistent that women are more likely to favor government spending on social issues, and that is likely one reason the gender gap emerged in 1980. Mr. Reagan campaigned aggressively to starve big government and shrink generous social programs, railing against “welfare queens” at a time when women, many of them poor, were increasingly heads of single-parent households. He fell in line with the Republican Party’s strong anti-abortion stance, even though he had signed liberal abortion legislation as governor of California.
Some argued that the gender gap emerged because women were voting in their self-interest. But the sociologist Martin Gilens, now the chairman of the public policy department at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, took issue with that idea.
In a paper published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology late in Mr. Reagan’s first term, he wrote, “I do not believe that ‘women’s issues’ such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) or abortion, nor economic conditions such as the growing number of impoverished women, are primarily responsible for the gender gap, though they may play a part.” Instead, he continued, “I think the gender gap reflects traditional differences in male and female values and personalities, differences such as men’s greater competitiveness and concerns with issues of power and control, and women’s greater compassion and nurturance, rejection of force and violence, and concern with interpersonal relations.”
The language is a bit dated, but much of the research since has come to similar conclusions. A 2012 report from what is now the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University reviewed polling results and summed up the issues dividing male and female voters.
Women, it found, were more likely to favor an “activist role for government” and were more supportive of guaranteed health care, same-sex marriage and restrictions on firearms. They were more likely to favor legal abortion without restrictions, though polls sometimes show fairly equal support among men and women on abortion.
Men’s political views were shaped by a more individualistic attitude, the report found — a feeling that government should not help so much.
Dr. Deckman, the Washington College professor, points out that the lived experiences of many women do not attract them to such a view.
“We expect women to be caretakers. That’s just still sort of the reality,” she said. “They do more taking care of kids, of elderly parents. That’s pretty universal around the world, but here in the U.S., it’s persistent.”
Women in Europe and other Western democracies are also more likely to vote for left-leaning candidates, but the gender gaps tend to be more modest. The reason, said Rosie Campbell, a professor of politics at King’s College, London, is that the issues that divide America’s political parties — and sexes — are not as contested in places like England. “Social welfare programs, public health care, abortion, guns, those are mostly off the table,” she said.
You can make an argument that, rather than men and women having changed their ways of thinking over the past several decades, the two major parties have basically branded themselves by gender, as well as by race. The hundreds of million of dollars spent each election cycle to “energize the base” serve to herd voters into their respective tents. Once inside, they hear messages that reaffirm and cement their party identity.
The Republican Party is for white men and people who think like white men. “We see it in poll questions that ask, “Is America getting too soft and feminine?” Dr. Deckman said. “Those who answer ‘yes’ lean strongly Republican.”
The Democratic Party is the party for women and for people of color, who are even more dependable Democrats than women. It is also, increasingly, the party of the college educated: In a late September Washington Post-ABC News poll, Mr. Trump led Mr. Biden by a modest 8 points among white men with a college degree, but by a whopping 39 points among white men without a college degree. In other words, white college-educated men are beginning to vote more like women and people of color.
These demographics may increasingly unite to head off the most extreme manifestations of the white male vote.
Even among minority voters, however, there is a gender gap. A Pew poll in early October showed that just 6 percent of Black women support Mr. Trump; for Black men, it was 11 percent. There was a bigger gap between Hispanic men and women: 23 percent of women were for Mr. Trump, and 35 percent of men.
Mr. Trump has widened just about every pre-existing divide in America, and it is hard to imagine a candidate better suited to turn the gender gap into a canyon. His boorish tone, inability to express empathy and unwillingness to admit mistakes are not qualities that most women find attractive. “Women see him being the opposite of someone who is caring,” said Dr. Gilens.
To the extent that Mr. Trump is entertaining, he would appeal more to men. There is evidence that when men and women pay attention to politics, they are looking at two different pictures.
“Men consume more political news, but for a lot of them, especially younger men, it’s like a hobby and a sport,” said Eitan Hersh, a professor at Tufts University and the author of “Politics is for Power.” They follow Nate Silver, a statistician and the founder of the website FiveThirtyEight, “like he’s some kind of god.”
“The women can’t do that because they’re out there organizing,” Dr. Hersh said. “They are way more active right now.”
Mr. Trump was already deeply unpopular with female voters when the coronavirus hit, and his calamitous response to it may have put a large majority of their votes out of reach. Men are dying from the virus at greater rates but in almost every other way, women are bearing the burdens. In September, when the new school year began and many children were stuck at home, learning online, women left the work force at four times the rate of men.
The gender gap cannot be completely differentiated from rank misogyny. Some would argue that it is misogyny. At the very least, it is a sign of our nation’s broken culture that men and women cannot agree on fundamental moral questions: The importance of integrity and common decency. The humane treatment of society’s most vulnerable. The worthiness of a man to lead our nation who apparently paid hush money to a porn star.
Anything could happen between now and Nov. 3, but Mr. Trump might be fading so fast and hard that Mr. Biden could win the male vote — though not the white male vote.
The president clearly knows he is struggling with women. His deficit with them is amplified by another kind of gap: Women consistently turn out to vote in higher numbers than men, by an average of about 4 percentage points.
“So can I ask you to do me a favor? Suburban women, will you please like me?” he begged at a rally in Johnstown, Pa., on Oct. 13. “Please. Please. I saved your damn neighborhood.”
This was part of an ongoing Trump trope — false in its particulars and racist in its intent — that Mr. Biden planned to flood suburban neighborhoods with low-income housing.
Two days later, at a North Carolina rally, the president tried to appeal to women by telling them what they want — a torrent of Trump-splaining that seemed unlikely to help him with the female demographic. “You know what women want more than anything else? They want safety, security, and they want to be able to have their houses, and ‘Leave me alone,’” he said. “Right? The suburban woman.”
Mr. Trump’s entreaties to women have come simultaneously with his attacks on the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris. Republicans spent a full three decades tearing down Hillary Clinton, often in flagrantly sexist ways — criticizing her clothes, her tone of voice, her physical stamina, her “likability,” her response to her husband’s infidelity. It worked and she lost because a large proportion of the nation, including lots of women, viscerally disliked her.
The Republicans have had no such head start with Ms. Harris, a relative newcomer on the national stage. But the assault has begun. Appearing on Fox Business Channel after the vice-presidential debate, Mr. Trump twice referred to her as “this monster.”
Half of the nearly 139 million Americans who voted in 2016 were married. It is impossible to know how many marriages include a Democrat and a Republican, but from data that researchers have compiled of voter registrations, it’s safe to say that it’s well into the millions.
A few were willing to talk to me.
Katie Blume works for a conservation advocacy organization, is a local officeholder in her small town in central Pennsylvania and was a Hillary Clinton delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Her husband, a mechanic, is a Trump supporter. He was awaiting dental surgery, and not up for talking. I asked how she was coping.
“I just drink more bourbon now,” she said.
But more seriously, she added, “I have to compartmentalize it.”
“He sees what’s posted on Facebook from his friends. One thing that resonates with him is immigration. He’s worried about people coming for Americans’ jobs. I care about social justice, the environment, reproductive rights. Those aren’t things he prioritizes. We talk about politics but we don’t argue about it.”
I also spoke with Ann and Ilya Brodsky, who live in Fair Lawn, N.J. She is an educator and a liberal Democrat; he owns an HVAC business and is a Trump supporter.
While they were good sports about it, they were arguing. Mr. Brodsky, who immigrated from Russia in his 20s, believes Republican statements that Democrats are radically to the left and associates them with the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union. “Marx had a good idea but people went the wrong way with it,” he said.
“Oh, please,” his wife said, “you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She said that their political differences were not important for many years, “but in this new regime, there’s no joking. It really can’t be discussed.”
She began talking about gun control, an important issue for her. He said he believed every American family needed a tank in their garage.
She put her head in her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t.”
Michael Sokolove is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.
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