Women making history: The gender gap

This post is one of a series of posts in observance of Women’s History Month.

The gender gap
emerged for the first time in the modern era in the 1980 campaign. At that
time, the networks each conducted their own exit polls, so the numbers differed
slightly from exit poll to exit poll. But they all showed that Ronald Reagan
had done much better with men than women, and the gender gap was born.

The differences in
the male and female vote spurred considerable academic research. AEI did an
analysis in the early 1980s, scouring public opinion polls for areas where men
and women differed and where their views were similar, looking at attitudes by
decade. From the onset of polling in the 1930s until the mid-1970s, the pattern
was pretty much the same. Women and men differed in levels of information about
politics, with men generally being more well-informed about national politics.
That’s still true today. Women and men differed on when it was proper for a
society to use force, on issues as different as the death penalty, and a
decision to go to war. All are still true. Additionally, women and men did not
differ on social issues. That’s mostly true today, though gay marriage has
historically received stronger support from women.

Starting in the
mid-1970s, some new issues divided the sexes. Women were less confident about
the economy’s future than were men. That remains true today. Many women were
entering the workforce, starting at the bottom and were subject to the vagaries
of the economic cycle. Many were heading single families and more vulnerable as
a result. The pollsters were asking far more questions than in the past about
the proper level of risk in society, and men and women differed significantly
about it, with women consistently taking the less risky response. These
differences continue to this day.

The women’s vote is not monolithic, of
course, but because of this combination of attitudes, women have voted more
Democratic than men in almost every election since 1980. The size of the gender
gap varies. Ronald Reagan won in 1980 with the same size gender gap (17 points)
that Bob Dole had (17 points) when he lost in 1996. In 2020, the gap was indeed
large at 23 points. In a mid-February 2021 Quinnipiac University poll, the
gender gap on Joe Biden’s approval rating was the same, at 23 points.