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
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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