By Karlyn Bowman
From the American Enterprise Institute
Thursday, March 6, 2008 12:00 AM
In 1936, the Gallup Organization asked people if they would vote for a woman for president "if she were qualified in every other way." Just 31 percent answered that they would. Gallup soon changed the wording, and by the time Hillary Clinton was born, a near majority, 50 percent, declared their willingness to vote for a "qualified woman," but almost as many, 47 percent, said they would not. Today, when the question is asked, an overwhelming proportion of those surveyed -- more than 90 percent -- say they would vote for a qualified woman.
Not only has willingness to vote for a woman changed dramatically over time, but so, too, have attitudes about women's suitability for politics. When the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked people in 1974, for the first time, whether most men were better suited emotionally for politics than most women, slightly more than four in ten, 44 percent said they were, while 49 percent disagreed. The last time that question was asked, huge majorities claimed there were no differences.
Doubts about a woman's ability to handle foreign policy issues have become more muted over time, too. In an early February ABC News/Washington Post poll, Clinton held a substantial 58-34 percent lead over Obama as the "strongest leader" among Democrats, and she led him by eight percentage points on handling Iraq as well. Among the population as a whole, doubts about women's stewardship of this key area have diminished, too.
In October of last year, 83 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said that Hillary Clinton had an excellent or good chance of being elected president. Rudy Giuliani, the Republican leader at that point in the national polls, trailed her on this score.
Hillary Clinton's lead in the Democratic contest has been boosted by her extraordinary strength among women. About 60 percent of Democrats are women, while Republicans and independents tilt in the male direction. Women have been voting in substantial numbers in Democratic primaries all year, regularly casting more than 55 percent of the ballots. On Super Tuesday, women were 57 percent of the electorate and they voted for Clinton by a 10-point margin. In Wisconsin, they split their votes evenly, leading some analysts to suggest her campaign was in serious trouble given her weakness among her core female supporters. But women came back again in Ohio and Texas. In Ohio, they were 59 percent of the electorate, up from 52 percent in 2004. In Texas, they were 57 percent, up 4 percentage points. In both states, women's support helped to put her over the top in the popular vote.
Since 1980 the much storied gender gap in our politics has been discussed largely as an interparty division. In 1980, men voted 36 percent for Jimmy Carter and 55 percent for Reagan. Women split their votes, 45 percent for Carter, and 47 percent for Reagan. The gender gap is now a permanent feature of our politics. Women lean consistently toward Democratic presidential candidates, and men to Republican ones. Even though other gaps in our politics are larger (the marriage gap, for example), the gender gap still captures the lion's share of press attention, especially when more women are voting than men. In 1980 women voted at the same rate as men for the first time. Fast forward to the 2004 elections, when, according to the Census Bureau, they cast nearly 9 million more ballots than men.
The gender gap today has a strong intraparty dimension that has been evident throughout the Democratic contests, with men being more reluctant to vote for Clinton. In Ohio, she won the votes of women by a substantial margin (57 to 41 percent), but she won the votes of men narrowly, 50 to 48 percent. In Texas, she beat Obama among women by 55 to 44 percent; among men, Obama barely won, 50 to 48 percent. Why do Democratic women and men see the race in different terms? Over time, the polls have documented a sea change in the nation's attitudes about women in politics. But they provide no easy answers about the intraparty dimensions of the gender gap that have been such a prominent feature of the Democratic race in 2008.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where she studies public opinion. She can be reached at email@example.com.