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How Not to Close the Gender Gap in Politics

As long as the Republican Party resists the welfare state, it's going to have trouble attracting more female voters.
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President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Photo: Public Domain)

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Photo: Public Domain)

Colorado Republicans, concerned about their string of statewide losses in recent years, have been making some efforts to reach out to demographic groups that have not historically backed their party. The most recent effort was a gubernatorial debate hosted by Colorado Christian University on "Women and Colorado's Future." Three leading Republican candidates seeking to unseat Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper attended, with former Representative Tom Tancredo declining.

The resulting debate most likely failed to move many undecided women to the Republican side. No, not because the debate moderator invited several female questioners up to the stage because it would look more "ornamental," or because they did so to the theme from The Dating Game, or because they were encouraged to think of the candidates as bachelors #1, #2, and #3, or anything like that.

Rather, the debate likely failed to achieve its desired outreach for two main reasons. First, these sorts of events almost never have any meaningful impact on partisan voting patterns. Keep in mind what this was—a local, non-televised debate between gubernatorial primary competitors. If not for the ham-fisted gender appeals, it likely wouldn't have received much press at all. The number of people paying attention to state politics is pretty modest right now, and this kind of event just isn't going to reach very many people. And those who are reached likely already have pretty firm views on the candidates and the parties.

The issues that divide the sexes tend to be associated with the welfare state: aid to the poor and elderly, health care provisions, and so forth.

Second, you're not going to change the gender dynamics of the party system based on a few weeks or even a few months of campaigning. As political scientist Christina Wolbrecht noted in this post at Mischiefs of Faction, the gender gap—the tendency for women to be more supportive of Democratic candidates than men are—has been basically a hard-wired aspect of American politics for about half a century. It didn't change much when abortion became legal across the country in 1973, when Democrats nominated a female vice presidential candidate in 1984, or when Republicans did the same in 2008—all events that many political observers assumed would either broaden or narrow the gender gap. If those sorts of events don't change the gender split, then it's hard to imagine the language or tone used at a debate would.

Why is the gender gap so durable? As Wolbrecht explains, it doesn't seem to be a function of political personalities or even stances on so-called "women's issues." (There actually isn't a gender gap on abortion, notably, with roughly equal numbers of men and women taking pro-choice stances.) Rather, the issues that divide the sexes tend to be associated with the welfare state: aid to the poor and elderly, health care provisions, and so forth. Women consistently take a more liberal position on these issues than men do, and especially since the Great Society programs of the 1960s, Democrats have taken a more liberal position on these issues than Republicans.

So what could Republicans do to diminish the gender gap and move more female voters toward their party? Well, they could be more embracing of social welfare services, for one thing. But that's not a small thing! Indeed, resistance to the welfare state is essentially the core belief of modern Republicans. The ideological activists who sustain the party through their labor and donations would not remotely stand for that. It would be tantamount to the Democrats giving up on civil rights to win over male voters.

Given that what would be necessary to end the gender gap would likely be far too costly for the party to seriously consider, more cosmetic maneuvers are pretty much all that are realistically available. That's not necessarily nothing. A concerted effort to at least not actively alienate female voters isn't a bad idea and could potentially yield modest dividends, or at least avoid a few costly mistakes.

Beyond that, though, we shouldn't expect the gender gap to shrink—or grow—much in the near future. It's an enduring feature of our party system, and our parties appear more set in their ways than ever before.