There has been a lot of talk lately about the "gender gap"--the stark differences in political preference between men and women. For years, the sexes voted for candidates in pretty much the same proportion, but in 1980 men preferred Ronald Reagan by a much greater margin (55 percent to 37 percent) than women (47 percent to 44 percent). Since Reagan's inauguration, that gender gap has, if anything, widened. In this year's congressional and state elections, it seems clear that men will vote much more Republican than women.

Most analyses of the gender gap have focused on women, and have asked why they are voting so differently from men. But why should women be considered the odd men out? This year, more women will vote than men. The real question is, why are men different? Or, as Freud might have asked, what do men want?

In politics, the first thing they seem to want is change. In presidential years before 1980, there were only minor differences between the voting patterns of men and women, but in close contests, men voted in favor of the party out of power (Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976) and women voted for the incumbent party (Nixon in 1960, Humphrey in 1968, Ford in 1976).

In 1980, men were more willing to risk change and vote for Reagan; this year, they are more willing to risk the continued clamor and commotion that would result from Republican attempts to dismantle the welfare state.

Women are innately conservative and less willing to risk change, which is only appropriate to their role as defenders of existing institutions such as home, hearth and the welfare state.

The second distinctive thing about male voters is their hunger for confrontation. Men formed two-thirds of the presidential constituency of George Wallace, the candidate who promised to throw pointy-headed bureaucrats into the Potomac. Today men cheer on Ronald Reagan when he says he will stand up to the Russians and to others who would challenge American authority abroad; women, like the decision-makers in the Carter administration, are more concerned about getting those hostages out alive.

Men, you will remember, formed the entire electorates of the nations that confronted each other too aggressively and started World War I. After women were added to the electorates, the democracies tried to avoid confrontation at any price and ended up in World War II.

The third difference between men and women is men's emphasis on the goal of economic efficiency. Men who vote -- which is to say, in this off-year election, about 35 percent of males over 18 -- are far more likely than the average adult American to hold a steady job and to be the head -- and in most cases they still like to use that word--of a two-adult family.

They are economically the most secure segment of our society, the group most likely to hold upscale, high-paying jobs. The unemployment rate for married men is notoriously low, even among minority groups that have been the victims of discrimination.

So male voters tend to favor ruthless pruning of budgets, free trade rather than protection of existing jobs, and the discipline of the market rather than the burden of government regulation. Some people and communities may be hurt by these measures, they will grant, but it won't be me -- and things will be better for everyone in the long run.

Finally, the kind of stable, married, economically secure men who make up most of the male electorate tend to be tradition-minded on the cultural issues that some of Reagan's political allies like to stress. These men have successfully repressed their own desires to be unstable, sexually liberated and economically carefree, and in most cases they are pleased with the resuts. They believe, from their own experience, that the discipline of traditional mores is salutary, and should be applied to more of society.

Women voters, in contrast, include many who are happy to be throwing off old restraints, and so they tend increasingly (particularly as the women of the baby boom replace women born a generation before) to react negatively to the politics of Phyllis Schlafly.

For years the cultural differences between male and female voters did not matter much; generally speaking, they were from the same economic groups, and voting was closely related to economic status. Now that most Americans live in what is in any historic perspective affluence, the widening cultural differences between life styles are increasingly affecting our political views; culturally, female and male voters increasingly live in different Americas (as well as different households).

Commentators have speculated on what the Republicans must do to win over more women voters. The real question is what the Democrats--who, after all, lost the last election rather badly and seem unlikely to win a 1974-style landslide this time--should do to win over more men.$