In every U.S. presidential election since 1964, more women than men have turned out to vote. And since 1980, the two genders have differed markedly in their preferences at the ballot box. Women tend to choose candidates from the Democratic Party more than men do; men do the same with Republicans. Though this gender gap in voting is not just in the U.S. — women around the world have become more likely to vote for candidates on the left, particularly in western Europe and Canada — it’s become a defining feature of American politics and has become more pronounced under President Donald Trump. Why have women and men diverged, and what does it mean for elections to come?

The Situation

In his surprise 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton — the first woman to head a major-party ticket — Trump won 52% of votes cast by men but only 41% of those cast by women, tying the biggest gender gap recorded in the four decades it’s been tracked in U.S. presidential elections. Trump entered office with an approval rating of 50% among men and 38% among women — another substantial gap, and one that has remained in the double digits through his presidency. A large gender gap drove the outcome of the 2018 U.S. midterm election, when Democrats captured control of the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, as Democratic candidates (including six women) began angling for the nomination to challenge Trump in the 2020 election, there was widespread agreement that female voters could play a decisive role in sending the Trump administration to an early end. In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen managed to close a once-significant gender gap in support for her National Rally party by modernizing the former National Front movement created by her father and remodeling it in her own image.

The Background

The gender gap in voting is relatively new. Research shows women in the U.S. generally voted the same as men in the early decades of the 20th century. As more women joined the workforce and put off marriage in the 1960s and 1970s, voting preferences began to shift, as they did elsewhere. The first documented gender gap was in the 1980 U.S. presidential election, when the Republican Party, under nominee Ronald Reagan, moved fully to the anti-abortion stance it has today. While men backed Reagan by a wide margin, the female vote was more evenly divided between him and Democratic President Jimmy Carter, creating a gender gap of 8 percentage points. Four years later, Reagan trounced Democrat Walter Mondale to win a second term and was supported by a clear majority of women. But the gender gap persisted: The percentage of women who supported Reagan, 56%, was six points less than the percentage among men. In the elections since then, the gender gap — defined as the difference between the percentage of women and the percentage of men voting for a given candidate — has ranged from 4 to 11 percentage points, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. 

The Argument

Political researchers are trying to figure out why women vote differently than men. Women voters were more left-wing than men in the 1990s in countries such as Japan, Ireland, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands, but more right-wing in less-developed nations including Turkey, Chile and Spain. That’s according to a 2000 report, which concluded that “the shift towards the left among women is strongly influenced by the modernization process.” More recent analysis ties the U.S. gap to perceptions of women’s economic security and the ideological polarization of U.S. politics, which has split the two parties on touchstone issues — such as homosexuality, caring for the poor and deploying military force — on which men and women have long diverged. Since more women than men tend to vote, the U.S. gender gap would seem to favor Democrats, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case: In the 10 elections of the gender gap era, starting with 1980, the Republican candidate won six times. One big reason: As women have gravitated toward the Democrats, men have moved in bigger numbers to the Republican Party. And the 2016 election results showed that gender is not the only gap at work. While Clinton scored wide margins of victory among black and Hispanic women, Trump won by 2 percentage points among white women, who accounted for 41% of the electorate.

The Reference Shelf

• The Pew Research Center’s examination of the 2016 election.

• A February 2020 article in The Atlantic explored why men vote for Republicans and women for Democrats.

• An International Political Science Review paper on political gender gaps worldwide.

• The Center for American Women and Politics has a collection of papers on the gender gap.

• The World Economic Forum  tracks other gender gaps — in health, education and the workplace — in annual reports.

• A Chatham House paper on “Europe’s Political Tribes,” published in December 2017, surveyed 10,000 Europeans on attitudes towards the European Union, identifying gender differences

-- Elizabeth Titus and Anne Cronin contributed to an earlier version of this article 

To contact the author of this QuickTake: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Leah Harrison at lharrison@bloomberg.net

First published May 8, 2015

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