The gender gap is commonly understood as a story about women. Since 1980 women, repelled by the Republican position on social justice, economic inequality, gun control, military issues, and reproductive rights, have voted and identified as disproportionately Democratic. This summer, as Gore languished, a different story emerged. Women seemed briefly willing to support a kinder, gentler Republican presidential candidate who talked about education, Social Security, and tax relief. However, in the post-convention period, women have returned to the Democratic fold with the enthusiasm we would expect given the policy differences between the candidates.
But there is another gender gap, and it is male. Over time, men have been deserting the Democratic Party in greater numbers than women have been embracing it. We might believe this loss does not matter so long as women remain the core of the Democratic coalition. But women are not monolithic; in most elections in the 1990s, white women split their votes fairly evenly between the parties.
Democrats ignore men at their peril. Gore's populist message bumps up against white male voters' antigovernment and antitax views, though this obstacle is not insurmountable. But if Democrats are going to win back men, they need a credible vision that emphasizes men's shared stake in the work of government.
Men's and women's identification with the Democratic Party was nearly identical in the 1950s and early 1960s. Starting in 1964, men's support for the Democrats dropped precipitously from just over 50 percent to the high 30s, and continued to decline throughout the 1970s, reaching a low of 28 percent in 1994. Overall, women remained more stable than men in their Democratic loyalty--women's identification hovered around the low 40s from the late 1970s to 1996.
The hemorrhage began with southern white men. Between 1964 and 1968, the Democratic advantage among this group dropped 14 percentage points (from 43 to 29); by 1992 a 58-point Democratic advantage among these men had been transformed into a one-point Republican advantage. The decline in white male support for the Democratic Party was also dramatic in the 1990s. Between the 1992 and 1994 elections, it dropped 10 points, and the Democrats have not since recovered. As Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers show in America's Forgotten Majority, this drop occurred mainly among white men with a high school degree or some college education, what they call the "new working class." For instance, there was a 20-point drop for Democratic candidates among white high school-educated men, and a less dramatic 10-point drop among white high school-educated women.
The Democrats, in fact, have largely reclaimed their 1994 losses among women. According to Teixeira and Rogers, this recovery stems largely from support picked up from white working-class women. In this post-convention period, women have shifted decisively to Gore, belying claims of the death of the gender gap. National polls show that before the convention, Gore had a quite narrow lead among women voters (somewhere around 4 percentage points); this has at least tripled since the convention. A recent Gallup poll shows that Gore, post-convention, also gained 18 points among women on his favorability measures.
But the Democrats' ongoing problems with men persist--especially white men. Currently, less than a fifth of young white men identify with the Democratic Party. President Clinton captured only a little over a third of the white male vote in both 1992 and 1996. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, George W. Bush garners 56 percent of white men compared to 36 percent for Gore; a Los Angeles Times poll gives Bush 55 percent compared to 31 percent for Gore among the same group. Among men of all races, 63 percent rate Bush favorably compared to 28 percent who rate him unfavorably. Overall, men are 11 points more positive toward Bush than toward Gore.
White male flight begins with race and the Democratic Party's association with civil rights. Nixon's well-timed southern strategy in 1968 helped link race, rights, taxes, and crime with the Democratic political agenda in the minds of white voters. But the story is incomplete without gender.
The social and political changes in the 1960s transformed the gender composition of the beneficiaries of government policies and programs. The New Deal welfare state and the post-World War II veterans' and building programs largely benefited white men. "Great Society" programs, on the other hand, targeted minorities, women, and children. They sought to rectify inequities in programs such as unemployment insurance and to expand targeted, "non-universalistic" programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Dependent Children. As women outlived men, even popular social-insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare became seemingly female. With these shifts, white men's stake in government decreased. White men became particularly hostile to welfare programs for the poor, which were no longer justified as universal social insurance.
Since the 1960s, men and women have become increasingly polarized in their views of government's role in people's lives. White men today are the most antigovernment sector of the electorate and are least likely to support social-welfare policies. In data collected by the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of white men agree that government is wasteful and inefficient, compared to 64 percent of white women. Sixty-six percent of white women agree that "government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep," compared to 54 percent of white men. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 51 percent of women say they favor smaller government with fewer services to larger government with many services, compared to 66 percent of men.
In recent focus groups with white college and noncollege men in Oakland County, Michigan, commissioned by Democracy Corps, men expressed frustration and disgust with a taxation system that they perceive unfairly asks them to pay for programs that do not work and do not improve their lives. When asked what would make society work better, one college-educated man simply replied, "A system of government that wouldn't burden us with so much taxes. That's number one. And number two, of course ... less government in our lives. I kind of think that the social programs ... [have] done more detriment than good in our society in general." When probed about the "problem" with the Democratic Party, another man said, "Frankly, I am tired of working and being taxed to support all these Democratic programs that don't work."
Yet these responses should not be interpreted as simple opposition to populist solutions. In fact, these same men were equally cynical about corporate America. They do envision a government role in curbing the excesses of market capitalism, which they see manifest in practices of institutions such as HMOs. However, there is no sense of a stake in the collective goal of making people's lives better. This confirms Theda Skocpol's insight that our social safety net fails to elicit popular support and a sense of shared responsibility because it targets the elderly and children without providing benefits to middle- and lower-income working families.
It seems unlikely that the Democrats will attract large numbers of affluent white men in the 2000 election, due to philosophical differences on economic issues. But the white, male working-class vote is available, especially if Democrats can speak to pocketbook concerns in universal terms, though this message is often hard to discern through men's antigovernment and antitax lens. Certainly the populist tone of the Gore campaign and the House Democrats--both of which call for middle-class tax relief, taking on HMOs and pharmaceutical companies, and raising the minimum wage--speaks to creating a shared interest in the work of government.
There is some evidence that this vision brings men, and downscale voters more generally, into the Democratic fold. In the post-convention period, for example, Gore has picked up support among some white working-class men. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, Gore gained 9 points among "white men earning between $20,000 and $50,000," compared to 6 points among all voters. A Zogby International poll for Reuters finds that among high school men and women, Gore's share of the vote increased from 34 percent to 48 percent, while Bush's declined from 53 percent to 39 percent.
It is too early to know if the populist message moves white men back to the Democratic Party. It is unlikely that one election can reverse trends at work for 30 years. But there is no reason a populist view of government and collective well-being should only be relevant to women voters--and every reason to believe it is important to both genders. ¤