In North Carolina, GOP Senate nominee Thom Tillis had built leads of up to 14 percentage points among men in recent polls. Republicans who have won male voters by that margin have only lost two Senate races in the past 10 years, according to exit polls. It’s equal to the margin Republicans posted nationwide during their electoral sweep in 2010.
But Tillis has consistently trailed in recent surveys, because Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan—whose campaign, like her party’s efforts in Colorado and elsewhere across the country, has focused relentlessly on issues of greater importance to women—has run up the score even higher among female voters.
The “gender gap”—the difference between Republicans’ usual margin of victory among men and Democrats’ usual margin of victory among women—is nothing new. It has been evident for years in almost every election up and down the ballot. But a National Journal analysis of public polls, and interviews with strategists from both parties, suggests that the gap has ballooned to historic proportions across 2014’s battleground states. Democrats are running campaigns designed to press an advantage among women that is helping the party compete in a number of races despite an unfriendly political climate and steep GOP advantages among men. Meanwhile, Republicans are searching for issues to combat the trend with female voters.
“I think the gender gaps are growing compared to past election cycles,” said Matt Canter, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s deputy executive director. “We’ll see how that turns out, but that’s certainly what the public and internal polling shows, in every race across the board.”
It’s a trend several Republicans privately admitted they are watching nervously, though some point out that one end of the growing gap isn’t bad news for the GOP. “I haven’t seen gender gaps like this in any race until this year, and we’re seeing them all over the place,” said Nicole McCleskey, a New Mexico-based Republican pollster for Public Opinion Strategies. “Typically people say we’re in bad shape with women, but it’s also that Democrats are not doing well with men. That’s why the gap is exploding like it is.”
In Senate and governor’s races since 2004, the average gender gap has been 13 points, according to a review of exit polls from the past decade, and just seven races (out of more than 200 measured in that time) have had gender gaps of more than 30 points. (The 2010 Colorado Senate race, in which Republicans carried male voters by 14 points but lost among women by 17 points for a 31-point gender gap, is one rare example.)
Since August, though, independent live-caller polls of Senate and gubernatorial battlegrounds have had an average gender gap of more than 20 points, and the gaps have topped 30 points in multiple polls of three races: the North Carolina and Iowa Senate contests and the Massachusetts gubernatorial election. There are only three battlegrounds where Democrats have trailed among women in a Senate or gubernatorial contest, and only another three where Republicans have trailed among men in any independent live-caller poll.
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