For the last few months FHQ has been pointing to an interesting trend in the (admittedly very) early presidential general election trial heats for 2012.* Sarah Palin is faring worse or worst among women against Obama than are her male counterparts (among the small list of prospective Republicans who have been polled against Obama with 2012 in mind). This is curious. There have been pronounced gender differences in vote choice that has varied since around the 1980 election.
More often than not this appears in the form of women supporting Democratic candidates while male votes opt for the Republican alternatives. That partisan angle has certainly been debated within the political science literature, though. Chaney, Alvarez and Nagler (1998--gated), for instance, found evidence that this was not solely a partisan divide but an incumbent/anti-incumbent divide with women being more likely to vote against an incumbent. But we certainly hear more about the fluctuations from presidential election to presidential election in partisan terms: how the gap was lower in 2004 because of so-called "security moms"** and greater again in 2008.
Regardless, the gap puts the Republican Party at something of a disadvantage in some elections more than others. One way the party could hypothetically combat the issue is to run female candidates. Now, we've certainly seen more of this in down-ballot races as opposed to presidential contests. After all, Sarah Palin was just the second woman on a presidential ticket in 2008 and the first Republican. But there's a problem there and McCain campaign manager, Rick Davis, picked up on this. He bemoaned the lack of women running within the party in his comments here at Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago.
Still, the expectation is that if Republicans are able to run women, they'll be able to reduce the, what I'm calling here, total gender deficit*** to some extent (depending upon the gender of their opponent and other state level or national factors). But that hasn't been the case in the 2012 presidential general election polling to date. Sarah Palin has, again, done worse with women against Obama than have her male counterparts.
Let's look at the numbers from the most recent Public Policy Polling survey on the matter (I will at some point in the future aggregate the gender numbers across all the polls where the data is publicly available.). There's clearly a divide between...
...and nationally unknown Pawlenty on the one hand...
...and Romney on the the other.
We can set Tim Pawlenty to the side for the moment. He just isn't a known quantity at this point in the game and that really affects his numbers among both women and men. 20% of each responded "not sure" when he was polled against Obama. [But who am I to deprive you of a glance at the figure?] So, let's consider Palin against Huckabee and Romney. The real discrepancy between them isn't the support among women, but that Romney and Huckabee are tied or slightly ahead among men, while Palin lags. Palin is in the same ballpark as Romney and Huckabee against Obama among women (They are all within 5 points of each other.), but again, the surprising thing is that she isn't doing MUCH better with that demographic. And while still in the same vicinity of Romney and Huckabee, she is still bringing up the rear with women voters.
Of course, when we consider the gender gap as it is traditionally measured -- the distance between the winning candidate's share of the vote among men and women -- Palin doesn't do all that poorly. In fact, she ties with Mitt Romney for having the lowest gender gap, while Mike Huckabee maintains the largest gap. The former Arkansas governor's gap is largely attributable to the fact that he loses to Obama with women but beats the president with men.
In the end, the difference between Sarah Palin (new vice presidential nominee) 2008 and Sarah Palin (ex-Alaska governor) 2009 among women is the difference between night and day. She has gone from making a huge difference for the McCain campaign with women (again, see Rick Davis' comments) to trailing among the demographic in hypothetical 2012 match ups with her at the top of the ticket.
UPDATE: Jack raises a great point in the comments. These numbers are a bit quirky because the expectation is that the GOP advantage among men would offset the advantage Democrats have with women. Here, though, only Huckabee is ahead among men. What that means is that there is something of a line to be drawn between the traditional gender gap and what I'm calling the total gender gap here. In this case, it should probably be called the total gender deficit. Here's a more traditional gender gap picture from Gallup in February 2008: a classic McCain vs. Clinton/Obama example. Obama and Clinton were relatively similar among women relative to McCain but the difference was in men. The way I'm calculating this deficit would have had Obama at -1 relative to McCain and Clinton at -9. To some extent this assumes that there is near equal parity between male and female voters in the electorate. I'll have to check on that.
*Again, these are (way too) early polls, and we here at FHQ would normally hold off on putting too much stock in them. However, the consistency of this result in poll after poll leads us to believe there is something to it.
**Of course, the security mom explanation was just one of convenience. There was little to no proof that members of that particular group weren't Bush supporters already. That the gender gap was smaller in 2000 and 2004 may indicate that women comprise many of the undecided swing voters that break evenly among the two major party candidates in a close election.
***The total gender deficit is calculated by adding the difference between President Obama and his prospective Republican opponents among men and women. While the traditional gender gap is relatively similar across the field of Republicans (within a range of 4 to 8 points), that doesn't give us an indication of the discrepancy between how much one gender group is offsetting the other between the parties. Looking at the exit polls from the 2008 election Obama won 56% of women to McCain's 43%. Meanwhile the president edged the Arizona senator by one point (49-48) among men. Obama, then, enjoyed a 7 point gender gap and a 14 point total gender deficit.
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