The Gender Gap in Voting and Issues

Published March 16, 2017

By Brigid Callahan Harrison, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University
Author, American Democracy Now, McGraw-Hill Education

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s an opportune time to take a look at some of the political differences between men and women. Polls and voting behavior indicate that men and women sometimes have very different views and priorities on issues, and often favor different candidates, particularly in national elections. This measurable difference in the way women and men vote for candidates and in the way they view political issues is called the gender gap, a term first coined in 1980 by Eleanor Smeal, then president of the National Organization for Women. That year, Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter lost to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, but Smeal noticed that in poll after poll, women favored Carter.

The Gender Gap in Modern Presidential Elections

Since that watershed 1980 election, the gender gap has been a factor in every subsequent presidential election, and, as shown in the table, in every presidential election, women have been more likely than men to favor Democratic candidates. The winner’s gender gap has ranged from a low of four percent (when Bill Clinton was first elected in 1992) to a high of 11 percent (when he was reelected in 1996).

Year Candidate (Party) Women Men Winner's Gap
2016 Donald Trump (R) 42 53 12
  Hillary Clinton (D) 54 41  
2012 Barack Obama (D) 55 45 10
  Mitt Romney (R) 44 52  
2008 Barack Obama (D) 56 49 7
  John McCain (R) 43 48  
2004 George W. Bush (R) 48 55 7
  John Kerry (D) 51 41  
2000 George W. Bush (R) 43 53 10
  Al Gore (D) 54 42  
1996 Bill Clinton (D) 54 43 11
  Bob Dole (R) 37 44  
  H. Ross Perot (Reform) 7 10  
1992 Bill Clinton (D) 45 41 4
  George H.W. Bush (R) 37 38  
  H. Ross Perot (Reform) 17 21  
1988 George H.W. Bush (R) 50 57 7
  Michael Dukakis (D) 49 41  
1984 Ronald Reagan (R) 56 62 6
  Walter Mondale (D) 44 37  
1980 Ronald Reagan (R) 46 54 8
  Jimmy Carter (D) 45 37  

Sources: The Washington Post (1996-2016); CBS News/New York Times (1980-1992).

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the Gender Gap

Hillary Clinton Supporters
Supporters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally with First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Though in the aftermath of the 2016 election, pundits were asserting that women had abandoned Hillary Clinton, in fact data shows that most cohorts of women supported her in as much as past Democratic nominees. Among women of color, 94 percent of African American women and 68 percent of Latinas voted for Clinton.i One difference was that men, particularly white men who had voted Democratic in the past, were less likely to vote for Clinton, contributing to a historic gender gap of 12 percent. In other words, four years ago, men favored Mitt Romney by 8 points, but in November, they favored Donald Trump by 12 percent. Clinton’s edge among women, which was consistent with other Democratic candidates, was not enough to overcome the dramatic swing to the Republicans by men, propelled largely by the 71 percent of white men without college degrees who voted for Donald Trump.ii Thus, the 2016 gap became the largest in history.iii

The Gender Divide on Policy Issues

No Gender Gap in Views on Whether Abortion Should be Legal
Survey conducted March 17-27, 2016, Pew Research Center

We know that women and men often vote differently, but why is that? In many cases, votes are reflective of differences in party identification between men and women, and sometimes different position on issues, or different issue priorities. Sometimes we see these differences manifesting in unexpected ways:

  • On the one hand, the two groups differ very little on the issue of abortion (and chart).iv

  • On the other hand, women are more likely to believe that a lack of pay equity exists in the United States.v

  • Men and women also differ on the issue of the death penalty, as men are about 15 percent more likely than women to favor capital

  • Women are more likely to favor gun control.vii

And in general, men’s and women’s views on the optimal role of government vary greatly. Women are more likely to believe that the government should do more to solve problems, one example being that women are much more likely to support a major government role in improving the social and economic position of racial minorities.viii This past election, we saw other differences: polls indicate that men are more likely to support deporting undocumented immigrants, more likely to prioritize economic issues, and more likely to distrust Washington,ix key issues for Donald Trump, who effectively used those wedge issues to attract disproportionate support among men voters.