I have a post up today at the Economist’s Democracy in American website discussing the conventional wisdom regarding the source of the sizable gender gap in the presidential race. In brief, I take issue with the argument that women’s greater support for Obama can be traced to differences between the two candidates, and their parties, on the so-called women’s issues, including equal pay, domestic violence, contraception availability and abortion. As you know, the partisan differences on these issues have been magnified in recent weeks by highly publicized comments from Romney’s fellow Republicans, most notably Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s statement regarding how women’s bodies respond to “legitimate rape” and conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s earlier characterization of Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University student who testified on Capitol Hill in favor of insurance coverage for contraception, as a “slut”.
Given the negative public backlash engendered by these comments, it is not surprising that Democrats tried to capitalize by inviting Fluke to speak at the Democratic Convention, along with several other high-profile women, including Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of the legislation Democrats pushed through Congress that required women to earn equal pay for equal work; Nancy Keenan, head of the abortion rights group NARAL; television star Eva Longoria; President Kennedy’s daughter and longtime Democratic icon Caroline Kennedy; and, not least, First Lady Michelle Obama, who delivered the capstone speech on the convention’s second night.
Collectively, this parade of speakers sought to bolster Obama’s standing among women by portraying Romney and his fellow Republicans’ as conducting a “war on women”. Romney, of course, had already played his own gender card by inviting a corresponding group of high-profile women to speak at the Republican National Convention, held a few days before the DNC. The speakers’ list included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, and Mitt’s wife Ann Romney, who sought to portray her husband in softer, kinder terms, presumably to better appeal to women voters. .
Given what political scientists know regarding the origins of the gender gap, however, it is not immediately obvious why either party thought their particular roster of women speakers, and the issues they highlighted, would shift the gap in either direction. As I argue in the Economist post, there is evidence suggesting that the gender gap is driven more by men leaving the Democratic Party than by women abandoning the Republicans. Moreover, the source of that gap is primarily women’s differing views regarding how parties treat the most vulnerable in society – the aged, poor, young and sick – as well as their greater opposition to the use of force.
Meanwhile, if I get a chance, I’ll post something on the debate in the next couple of hours, as prelude to live blogging tonight.