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Gender Gap Is Wild Card in Wartime Elections

Monday, March 25, 2002

Women support Bush's war on terrorism and military spending at the same level as men, but with not as much enthusiasm. What remains unpredictable is how women's current approval will translate into votes this spring and fall.

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Women support Bush's war on terrorism and military spending at the same level as men, but with not as much enthusiasm. What remains unpredictable is how women's current approval will translate into votes this spring and fall.
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Linda DiVall

(WOMENSENEWS)--The war on terrorism is sharply changing women's opinions on military affairs and has temporarily increased women's support for the president, making the gender gap a much more unpredictable factor in primary and general elections this year, pollsters say.

In the most recent ABC News poll on March 10, President Bush had an 82 percent approval rating, including support of 83 percent of men surveyed, and 81 percent of women surveyed--figures consistent with other major polls. The 2 percentage-point difference is statistically insignificant, though women more often identified themselves as approving "somewhat," while men more often said they "strongly" approved.

Two days before Sept. 11, the gap between women and men was 7 percentage points, with women less supportive of the president. At that time, ABC News polls showed Bush with a 55 percent approval rating, including 59 percent of men surveyed, and 52 percent of women.

"The polls do show that women are behind the war on terrorism, but when you factor in the prospect of casualties, you've got significant erosion of support," says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "The war effect depends on what comes next, and nobody knows."

Several remarkable trends have emerged in polling figures in recent months.

Bush has sustained record-high levels of support over a period longer than have other presidents, according to many polls. If the crisis wanes, pollsters expect women's support for the president to decline faster than men's. Women remain consistently more worried than men about future terrorist attacks, even as that concern subsides some, according to Pew Center data. Women's support for military action is about the same as men's, but women's support is much more sensitive to the prospect of casualties than is men's support, according to Pew Center data. Women's support for military spending remains at levels much higher than in early September, a new phenomenon related to women's traditional emphasis on keeping their families and communities safe, pollsters say.

Pollsters' opinions are mixed about the possible influence that women's increased support for the president and for the military could have on a rolling schedule of primaries this year. American women historically have identified more with the Democratic Party and its candidates, and men with the Republican Party and its candidates; this persistent difference has led politicians to see issues in terms of a "gender gap." Republicans hope to retain some of Bush's wartime support among women over the long term and use it to their advantage, analysts say.

"There is no gender gap this point, because people are united behind the president," says Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster based in Alexandria, Va. "It's positive for Republicans in general, but whether this will translate to coattails on Election Day is really hard to say."

During the past 20 years, the gender gap in presidential elections has ranged from 6 percent to 11 percent, with similar gaps evident in congressional elections. But pollsters agree that presidential approval ratings can have little to do with individual candidates' prospects.

Divall noted that in the March 5 California gubernatorial primary, White House favorite Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, lost the Republican election.


Support Can Boost Fund-Raising

Yet National Women's Political Caucus President Roselyn O'Connell, a Republican, says that high public support for the White House now can buoy campaign fund-raising efforts for Republicans this spring. That money affects candidates' current standing and can do a much to sway general election races in the fall. The president has made a host of fund-raising forays since the beginning of the year. "This administration is going to spend its political capital to make sure Republican incumbents get re-elected," O'Connell says. "In all the congressional races and gubernatorial races, candidates are going to need to respond to women's concerns about the safety of their families, about how secure they can feel flying from one coast to another."

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman says that the president's approval ratings are separate and distinct from voters' opinions about congressional and gubernatorial candidates. In the Florida governor's race, for example, Democrat Janet Reno has narrowed the lead of Republican incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush from about 20 percentage points to 8 to 12 percentage points since Sept. 11, he says.

"People seem to make a pretty clear distinction between their approval of the way the president is conducting the war on terrorism, which everyone obviously supports, and the domestic issues that the Congress and their governors are responsible for," says Mellman, who is based in Washington. "If there's any gain for the president, we won't see that until 2004."


Women's Support for Military Spending Grows

Among the changes in women's opinions is a big swing in support for military spending, and a significant narrowing of the gender gap on the issue. Men have traditionally favored more defense spending, while women have held a higher priority on domestic issues such as education and the environment.

Pew Center polls in recent months show women's support for higher defense spending jumping to 47 percent in late October 2001, compared to 24 percent earlier in the year. During the same period, men's support for higher defense spending increased to 53 percent from 41 percent. That means the gender gap between women and men on this issue was about 6 percentage points – far smaller than the 17 percentage-point gap before Sept. 11.

A similar Pew survey question about national priorities in February also showed a jump in favor of defense spending across the board, but most markedly an increase among women.

"There seems to be almost a national consensus on these issues," says Pew's Doherty. "Being attacked changes the rules of the game."

Pollsters agree that the Sept. 11 attacks have changed public opinion in new and unpredictable ways, but they also say that gender influences on the political fallout can be just as unpredictable.

"The fact that we were attacked provides a fairly deep vein of support for the president's efforts to defend this land," says Ethel Klein, the pollster who popularized the term "gender gap."

"Keep watching the numbers on women's approval rating of the president--women's support will dwindle sooner than men's and understanding why that is happening is yet another clue in to understanding 'what women want.'"

Marie Tessier is a freelance reporter who covers national and international affairs.

For more information:

The Pew Research Center on the People and the Press
(reports and links):
http://www.people-press.orgmailprc@people-press.org

Linda A. DiVall's polling and research firm,
American Viewpoint:
http://www.amview.com

Mark Mellman's polling and consulting firm
The Mellman Group:
http://www.mellmangroup.com