Why Women Are Democrats’ Last Best Hope to Salvage the Senate

Republicans are nervously watching the gender gap widen as Democrats press their advantage with female voters.

Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Oct. 1, 2014, 4:20 p.m.

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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