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There’s No Such Thing as the Women’s Vote …

... and it looks like it might not matter if there was.

In politics, this has been, again, a Year of the Woman. The notion, though, refers not just to candidates Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin but also to the legions of female voters on whom they’ve focused attention. This election has produced, recast, debunked and then revived a raft of popular thinking about how women in America vote.

Women will vote for a woman candidate, right? Well, no (even among Democrats, baby boomer women voted for Clinton, while recent college graduate women opted for Barack Obama).

Women won't vote for a female candidate who opposes traditional women's rights issues, right? Well, no (Palin’s coming-out has unmasked a passionate base of women who consider themselves feminists on very different terms).

Women's issues are defined as health care, education and social services, right? Well, no (they may also include gun rights, offshore drilling and traditional family values).

The one constant that has remained is the belief that women will cast the decisive votes this November.

The New York Timesrecently reported that the largest recipient, outside of news programs, of campaign advertisements this year has been The Oprah Winfrey Show, as both John McCain and Obama battle there for women’s votes.

Pundits are homing in on this year’s preferred female demographic: the single white female — or “Sex in the City Voter.”

A former Clinton strategist and Democratic pollster predicted to Politico that women would be “the absolute swing vote in this campaign, and it’s not clear which direction they are going to go in.”

But history and research tell us two things about women voters — there is really no such thing as “the woman’s vote,” as a monolithic bloc, and women voters in America have wielded less collective influence than the media have ascribed to them. If there really are such creatures as Soccer Moms, Hockey Moms, Wal-Mart Moms or Security Moms, they may be elbow-deep in politics at the school-board level, but they have rarely been responsible for choosing our president.

The rest of what political scientists — and everyday women — tell us about their voting patterns is far more complicated than would fit on a teleprompter talking point.

The Bloc That Refuses to Vote as One
Since women earned the right to vote in the U.S., they have single-handedly been responsible — as measured by popular vote — for the outcome of but one presidential election. In 1996, women so overwhelmingly favored Bill Clinton that they overcame the male preference for Bob Dole.

Put another way, if women were removed from the electorate, the outcome of all the presidential elections for the last eight decades, save that one year, would be unchanged.

“The only real manifestation of women’s electoral power is if they accomplished an end that men did not want; that’s the only time it matters,” said Linda Hirshman, the author of Get to Work. “Otherwise, it might be like blondes, brunettes, swimmers; the electorate divides into many groups.”

That statistic surprises for two reasons. Women have long made up more than 50 percent of the electorate, meaning their collective influence has been unequal to their share of the voices (in 2004, more than 8 million more women than men voted). And pundits have been telling us for years that women — usually certain kinds of moms — have been the key swing demographic.

One way to understand the failure of women as a voting bloc is to recognize that they might not be a voting bloc at all.

“I don’t think women have ever been a voting bloc in the U.S. with common interests,” said Masum Momaya, the curator of an online exhibit through the International Museum of Women titled “Women, Power and Politics.”

“In the ’60s and ’70s, historians will tell you there’s a very distinct polarization of women at that time: On the one side we have the social conservative movement, and on other side the feminist movement. Talking about women as one bloc kind of ignores what we know as history.”

Momaya points out that women were not even united on suffrage, as some of the movement’s fiercest detractors were … other women. And among those who championed the right to vote, women were divided on exactly why they should have it: Some felt they would bring a uniquely feminine perspective to the electorate while others argued for suffrage on the grounds of equality.

For the next several decades, women voted in trends nearly identical to men, a pattern some historians attribute to women being more likely to vote with their husbands (upon whom they depended economically) than with other women.

Then, in 1980, political scientists began to notice the “gender gap,” a voting phenomenon that has persisted since.

For the last seven presidential elections, women have tended to be more Democratic than men have, in numbers that reached their height in 1996.

So what happened in 1980?

“Ronald Reagan was running for president, and he was a saber-rattler,” said Marion Just, a professor at Wellesley College and a research associate of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.

Around this time, two of the trends were born that today often make up the entire caricature of the woman voter: She’s a dove, and she favors government-assisted social programs — two common planks of Democratic Party platforms.

The gender gap, though, is only so useful in understanding voting patterns in a system where the president isn’t actually elected by popular vote. Women favored Al Gore by an 11 percent margin over men in 2000, but that margin was much smaller in the swing states that mattered most. Similarly, in 2004, John Kerry benefited from only a 2.8 percent gender gap in the crucial swing state of Ohio, while women that year in safely Democratic Oregon proved 16 percentage points more likely than men to vote for him.

The gender gap shows — partly due to the Electoral College, partly due to the lack of unanimity among women — that women vote more Democratic than men but not more Democratic enough to make a difference.

Or, as Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, put it: “The problem has been the men, because men have overwhelmingly favored the Republican candidate over the Democratic candidate. What’s happening is men’s votes just end up trumping women’s votes because their preference is so strong.”

Less Engaged but More Likely to Vote
While women as a homogeneous unit don’t neatly fit onto specific sides of certain issues, research has identified some other trends about their voting behavior.

For one thing, said Northern Illinois University professor Barbara Burrell, women tend to make their decisions later than men do, contributing to the impression that they disproportionately make up swing voters. An ABC News/Washington Post poll of 1,133 adults concluded after the close of both parties’ conventions — and after Sarah Palin’s introduction — that white women were bailing in a 20-point swing away from Obama to McCain.

Much of the discussion that followed centered on whether these women will choose to side with Palin’s life story or Obama’s policy standards.

As they make that decision, women are statistically coming from a position of less political engagement than men at the national-election level. They’re less likely to follow news about politics, to contribute to political parties or to discuss politics with their friends — trends that often disappear at the local level. Nationally, the only political metric on which women consistently rate higher than men is voter turnout.

Journalist Melinda Henneberger interviewed several hundred women across 20 states for her 2007 book If They Only Listened to Us.

“Anecdotally, what I found was a shocking number of really smart and accomplished women who have never had a political conversation with their closest friends,” she said.

Henneberger saw the axiom that women are more conflict-averse playing out in comments like “I just don’t want to get into it” over the “dirty business” of politics. But the same attitude creates a self-fulfilling prophesy of marginalization, another theme across ideology that Henneberger found.

“The more you think you’re powerless, the less you participate,” Just agreed, “and therefore the less your views are taken into account, and you feel powerless.”

When Henneberger, at least, listened to these women, she was often surprised by what they said.

“So many times — and again my stuff was not a poll, more like a postcard — they would spend all this time telling me what the most important issue in the world was to them,” Henneberger said. “Then they spent the next half-hour saying why they voted against the person who agreed with them on what they said was their top issue.”

On what, then, were they basing their votes?

“It always came down to one or two things,” she said. “Either ‘I just had a really good feeling about that guy,’ or ‘I just had a really bad feeling about the other guy, the one who agreed with me.’”

Trust, to many women, was fundamentally more important than whether or not they agreed with what the more trusted candidate was saying.

Using the "I Word" in Mixed Company
There is a word for this behavior that Hirshman has controversially thrown out: irrational.

And that would certainly be the simplest way to explain why disaffected Hillary Clinton voters would emotionally opt not to vote for the remaining candidate whose policies most closely resemble Clinton’s (as polls suggested some Clinton supporters intend to do).

Henneberger added, though, that it’s not just women who make these character calculations in the voting booth — it’s all of us. Maybe all of us — men, too — are slightly irrational voters, prone to picking a candidate for his toothy smile and not his energy policy (or, as Just suggested, picking a candidate and then rationalizing our positions to fit his or hers). A lot of confusion, Henneberger suggested, stems from the fact that none of us really votes on the issues we say we’ll vote on.

Few people with a hand in elections have said this out loud.

“It’s something I think Republican strategists have figured out, while the Democratic proclivity is to use the head and not the heart, to say, ‘He’s got to win; he’s smarter,’” Henneberger said. “They’re just loath to recognize that that’s not always how these decisions are made. I think strategists don’t want to say that because you never want to be caught acting like voters aren’t smart and logical. That’s not a winning strategy to say that.”

She wants to see the Democratic Party do as the Republicans have and target the hearts of voters. The differing strategies have been in sharp contrast this year.

“Issues matter, but that’s in part why this election is so close,” Carroll said. “Because if it were just on the issues and you lined up people’s issues preferences with the candidates, I think there’s no question Barack Obama would be way ahead. But clearly people are trying to size these guys up, make some (character) decisions on who they think would be a better leader.”

That lesson is true of all voters, but we don’t talk about men the same way we do women. We don’t talk about a men’s voting bloc (although arguably a more cohesive one exists); we don’t talk about Soccer Dads or Security Dads (“NASCAR Dads” were discredited as a real voting demographic); and we don’t talk about male swing voters with the same anticipation of what they’ll do.

The focus on women, then, may be most valuable for illuminating trends that are true of us all.

Hirshman wants the equation to change in a different way, by more women voting rationally to exert a more strategic (and, for her, Democratic) impact on elections. But it may be simpler for politicians to recognize the irrational behavior of us all — and tweak their messages accordingly — than to ask a large part of the electorate to start behaving differently.

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