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Jewish World Review
March 13, 2006
/ 13 Adar, 5766
Politics, marriage, and women's votes
One of the myths that Kate O'Beirne skewers in "Women Who Make the World Worse," her shrewd and refreshing new
book on the modern women's movement, is the myth of the gender gap the potent edge that Democrats are supposed to
have over Republicans when it comes to attracting women's votes.
For decades, writes O'Beirne, feminists have been brandishing the gender gap as if it were a political weapon they could
deploy at will. Eleanor Smeal, a former president of the National Organization for Women, published a triumphant book in
1984 titled "Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President." But on Election Day that November, Democrat Walter
Mondale was flattened by Ronald Reagan's 49-state landslide, notwithstanding Mondale's historic choice of a female running
mate, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. Reagan won 62 percent of the male vote and 56 percent of the female
vote a six-point gender gap, but probably not what Smeal had in mind.
In fact, of the last seven presidential elections, Republicans have won five three times getting more women's votes than the
Democrats. For all the rhetoric about the mighty gender gap Democratic strategist Ann Lewis once called it "the Grand
Canyon of American politics" Republicans seem to bridge it with little difficulty.
And that, as O'Beirne emphasizes, is because women aren't monolithic voters and don't march in lockstep to the beat of a
liberal drummer. The best evidence of that is the electoral gap that really does matter in American politics the gap
separating married women from those who are single.
Unlike the gender gap, there is nothing illusory about the marriage gap. Married women are more likely to vote Republican;
unmarried women are more likely to vote Democratic. In the most recent presidential election, unmarried women voted for
John Kerry by a 25-point margin, while President Bush won the votes of married women by an 11-point margin: a marriage
gap of 36 points.
"Want to know which candidate a woman is likely to support for president?" asked USA Today in 2004, as the
presidential race was heading into the home stretch. "Look at her ring finger."
According to a 2005 analysis of the Kerry-Bush race by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a prominent Democratic
polling firm, "the marriage gap is a defining dynamic in today's politics, eclipsing the gender gap." Even after controlling for
numerous other factors age, race, income, gun ownership, union membership, education, church attendance, and even party
identification Greenberg found that married voters were significantly more apt to vote Republican than unmarried voters
Why? What is it about wedlock that makes women more Republican or about the absence of wedlock that makes them
more Democratic? Here are three hypotheses:
Financial protection. Single women, especially if they have children, are more likely to be dependent on the government
for welfare, Social Security, and other economic benefits. A majority of unmarried women, 54 percent, have household
incomes below $30,000, double the percentage of married women with incomes that low. With greater reason to be anxious
about economic security, single women tend to support a more active and paternalistic role for government the traditional
Democratic view. Married women, by contrast, are much less likely to depend on government support. Instead, many come to
see the welfare state and its tax burden as a threat to the well-being of their family, making them more inclined to vote
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Children and cultural values. Married parents with children are less likely to support the party whose policies make it
harder to shield their children from corrosive cultural influences. "Kerry did not have a single message that resonated with
married parents," the scholar Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote after the 2004 election. "He opposed the right to parental
notification for minors' abortions, condoned partial-birth abortion, and said not a single word about television's graphic
depictions of sex, violence, [and] murder." Democratic leaders, too, often seem bemused by the kind of Americans who "put
religious bumper-stickers on their cars and struggle to 'work on their marriage' while keeping their kids away from sex, drugs,
and alcohol, as well as the lesser lures of body piercings, tattoos, gangsta clothes, and other pop fashion."
Male influence. Women are significantly less likely than men to follow national and international affairs, a knowledge gap
that researchers have documented for decades. In a new survey conducted for Women's Voices, Women Vote by the
Greenberg polling firm, a large majority of nonvoting single women 70 percent said they "find politics and elections so
complicated that it is hard to understand what is really going on." That helps explain why single women are much less likely to
vote. It also explains why married women more often adopt their husband's political outlook which tends to be more
conservative than the other way around.
Of course there are many voters who don't fit these patterns, and other explanations for the marriage gap. But this much
seems clear: Democrats gain when women stay single, Republicans benefit when they marry. Marriage may be good for
society as a whole. But only the GOP has a political incentive to say so.
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