Women for Obama, men for Romney

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 23, 2012


Two weeks before the election, the sharpest divide in the American electorate is not between Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) states. The gender gap in political preferences in the U.S. in 2012 is the second widest since 1980. If Obama wins the election, he will have to thank women for his victory. If women turn out at lower rates than men, Romney could win the election.


Because the U.S. presidential election is an indirect contest, winning the Electoral College is even more important than winning the popular vote. A candidate needs to win 270 votes in the 538-member college to win the presidency.  As a result, candidates focus their efforts in the undecided states.  In 2012, Florida (29 votes), Ohio (18), Iowa (6), Virginia (13) and Colorado (9) will likely be the decisive states. Romney needs to win in most of those states to take the White House away from Obama. Though Romney is ahead in Florida and Virginia, Obama continues to have the lead in the other battleground states. RealClearPolitics.com predicts that if the election were held today, Obama would win 281 votes in the Electoral College. The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog predicts 288 votes for Obama. In either case, it would be a narrow victory. Thus, any small mistake or miscalculation by the Obama campaign could tilt the balance in favor of Romney.


There are other forms of analyzing political preferences.  In countries with direct elections, class-based, ethnic or religious differences in electoral preferences are normally identified as decisive in influencing the results.  In the U.S., African Americans and Latinos vote overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic Party. However, since they tend to live in states where Republicans or Democrats already have a commanding majority (as Texas or Southern states in the case of Republicans and California and New York in the case of Democrats), their vote does not tip the election in either direction.  To be sure, in 2012, Latinos in Florida and Colorado could cast the decisive vote in the election.  But Latinos are in general under-represented in the battleground states.


One of the most important voting gaps in the U.S. in recent years has been between men and women. A majority of voting women have supported democratic presidential candidates since 1992.  Bill Clinton won among men and women. In 1996, Clinton narrowly lost among men but decisively won among women. In 2000, Al Gore won by 11% among women and lost by 9% among men.  Gore won the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College against George W. Bush. In 2004, democratic candidate John Kerry also won among women by 3%, but lost by 11% among men, failing to deny President George W. Bush a second term. In 2008, Obama won among women by 11%, but narrowly defeated McCain among men by 1%. Pre-electoral polls show Obama leading Romney by 9% among women and trailing the Republican by the same 9% among men.  If only women voted, Obama would surely win.  If only men voted, Romney would win in 40 of the 50 states. 


The result of the 2012 election might depend on the turnout levels among men and women. Historically, women have had slightly higher turnout than men.  In 2008, among those aged 30 or older, there was not statistical difference in turnout between men and women, but among those aged 29 or younger, women voted at higher rates (55%) than men (47%). The expectation is that turnout in 2012 will be slightly higher than in 2008.  More than 135 million people should participate in the election on November 6 (or casting absentee ballots).


Because the election will come down to a few battleground states, turnout by gender will be a decisive element in tilting the balance in favor of either candidate.  Higher turnout in Florida—especially among women, but also among the poor—will give Obama a chance in that Romney-leading state. Lower turnout among women in Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire will make those states competitive and will give Romney a chance to win the 270 votes he needs in the Electoral College.


If turnout stays within the range observed in previous elections, Obama should win the popular vote. However, if turnout varies across states—with more men turning out in battleground states—then Romney could very well win the Electoral College even if Obama wins the popular vote by a narrow margin.


In the last few weeks of the campaign, President Obama will likely focus on promoting turnout among women.  The president will need all the help he can get from Democratic candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives to foster turnout among likely voters. In the democratic convention, Michelle Obama’s speech lifted the spirits of democrats. In his own convention speech, Obama credited his mother, grandmother and wife with his own success as a person. On November 6th, support among women might again confirm the perception that Obama is in the White House because of the prominent role women have had in his life.