Mind the Gender Gap

The erosion of the gender gap in this election starkly illustrates Alan Brinkley's insights regarding how issues of class and values pose challenges for progressives and the Democratic Party. In the last two presidential elections, the Democratic candidate won among women fairly decisively, by 16 points (Bill Clinton) and 11 points (Al Gore), respectively. In contrast, John Kerry won women voters by a mere 3 points, 51 percent to 48 percent. Kerry's trouble with women is clearly rooted in the decline of support among white, blue-collar women for Democratic candidates, a trend that reached its low point to date in this election.

During the 1990s, Democratic candidates struggled with white, blue-collar women while gaining ground with college-educated women. In 2000, Gore won 53 percent of the vote among women with a high-school education or less, 50 percent of the vote among women with some college education, and 57 percent of the vote among women with a college education. This represented a 5-point decline among high-school-educated women and a 3-point decline among women with some college education for the Democratic candidate from 1996. In 2004, George W. Bush made gains with women in general, but the increasing softness among blue-collar women took its toll. Kerry won college-educated women by 9 points (54 percent to 45 percent), broke even with women with a high-school education (50 percent to 49 percent) -- a 3-point drop from 2000 -- and lost women with some college education by 2 points (49 percent to 51 percent). Even starker, in a post-election survey by Democracy Corps, Kerry lost white women without a college education this year by 23 points (38 percent to 61 percent).

The erosion of support for Democratic candidates among women represents a political transformation from a time when voters, both working class and affluent, voted in ways consistent with their economic interests. Today, despite the economic interests, socially conservative, white, blue-collar women have moved increasingly into the Republican camp, primarily around social and cultural issues that include perceived moral decline, abortion and reproductive health, challenges to women's traditional roles in society and family, and gay rights. This is not a recent development; it is the culmination of the increasing polarization around cultural issues that began in the 1970s and intensified in the 1990s.

In this election, this trend proved true even among those blue-collar women voters who seemed most likely to vote for Kerry. White, older, blue-collar women are among the most economically insecure in our country, with deep concerns about health-care costs and retirement security. Those and other domestic topics dominated the campaign in the first part of 2004, at least in campaign advertising in the battleground states. During this period (February to April), Kerry led with white older women by an average of 7 points and white, older, non-college women by 2 points. By election day, Kerry lost white older women by 7 points and white, older, non-college women by 18 points. Even more striking, there was a 14-point gap between white, older, non-college women's identification with the Democratic Party (4-point Democratic disadvantage) and their support for Kerry (18-point disadvantage).

What happened over those months? Kerry lost ground with older, white, blue-collar women when the national discussion moved from health care, retirement, and other domestic priorities to security, the war on terrorism, and the war in Iraq. Starting with a Democratic convention focused on security and military experience, economic issues were largely absent from the national scene. In the absence of a real economic discussion, these voters swung to Bush as he tapped into their social conservatism, their support for his approach to the war on terrorism, and their admiration of his religious faith.

Brinkley clearly identifies the twin challenges of addressing the absence of a real economic vision and the “values” gap faced by progressives and Democrats, and these challenges are most dramatically felt among white blue-collar women. But this election shows that Democrats have opportunities to speak to some of the most economically vulnerable women voters -- Kerry won unmarried women decisively (54 percent of whom earn less than $30,000 a year) -- if they can offer a compelling narrative about how to promote women's economic security while emphasizing the shared values of opportunity, equality, tolerance, and fairness, and not ceding faith to the right.

Anna Greenberg is the vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and a former professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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