Harpell Martin

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Published Sunday, Nov. 19, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News


Gender gap is `alive and well' but subgroups complicate picture

Men and women showed strongly different preferences Nov. 7. Women supported Democrat Al Gore by the nearly identical 11-point margin by which men supported Republican George W. Bush, according to several analyses of exit polls.

``The gender gap is very much alive and well, and quite sizable,'' concluded Susan Carroll, senior research analyst at Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.

The modern gender gap -- shorthand for the tendency of women to support Democrats and men Republicans -- first appeared in Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter, and has appeared to varying degrees since. This year, Bush won a majority similar to Reagan's among men, but the Texas governor did not do as well among women.

In contrast, Gore matched President Clinton's 1996 performance among women -- who were largely responsible for Clinton's re-election -- but the vice president fell much farther short with men. In 1996, Clinton became the first president to win without carrying men, whom he lost by just a hair.

Helping Gore, who now leads in the nation's popular vote, is the fact that more women went to the polls than men, a recurring phenomenon that generally has helped Democrats.

The gender gap also influenced U.S. Senate and House races, where women provided the margin for Democratic Senate victories by Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, and possibly Maria Cantwell of Washington, whose race is still too close to call.

But the voting dynamics of the 2000 gender gap are more complicated than men vs. women. How women split their votes this election highlights more clearly than ever the divisions among them based on race and whether they work or are married.

``We're not a monolith,'' said Leslie Wolfe, president of the liberal-leaning Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, white women split their votes evenly between Bush and Gore. But minority women voted heavily in favor of the vice president. Minority women, it appears, are responsible for providing the vice president with his cushion among women. Minority men helped Gore cut into Bush's enormous lead among white men, but didn't come close to making it up.

``Who's driving the gender gap is the question,'' said Irene Natividad, national coordinator of the non-partisan WomenVote2000 project, which sponsored get-out-the-vote efforts among minority women. ``You have to place race and ethnicity way at the top.''

Political scientists generally attribute much of the gender gap to the different life experiences of men and women, and how they size up each party's agenda. Working women, for example, typically earn less money than men, and women with children worry more about education and child care opportunities.

Those concerns, said Natividad, are even more magnified for minority women.

``They tend to have a belief that government can improve their lives,'' a traditionally Democratic view, Natividad said. Conversely, many white women, particularly those who are married and live in the suburbs, found ``Governor Bush's `compassionate conservatism' appealing,'' she said. Married women, who made up about one-third of the electorate, were equally split between the two candidates, but single women sided with Gore by more than 2-1.

There was also a clear difference of opinion between working and non-working women. Working women supported Gore by a 58-44 ratio, while non-working women gave Bush a 52-39 edge. Said Wolfe: ``A lot of women not in the workplace are not focused on workplace issues'' such as access to child care, equal pay for equal work, affirmative action -- all considered Democratic strong points.

Yet, Bush made headway with white women, unlike some recent Republican candidates. He highlighted education proposals and downplayed his opposition to abortion, which can be a defining issue for some women. Bush also sought to draw distinctions between himself and policies, such as how to treat the poor and immigrants, pushed by the Republican-controlled Congress, which in 1996 drove women away from the GOP.

-- Mary Anne Ostrom

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Harpell Martin
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