Mining the Gender Gap for Answers

The New York Times – by Robin Toner – March 2, 2008

Move beyond the tactical skirmishes in this campaign, and one of the most intriguing issues remains the influence of gender on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy.

The questions are fundamental and — even with modern polling technology — almost impossible to answer. For example: How much of Mrs. Clinton’s political vulnerability is linked to being a woman, and how much to her own, very specific political identity and past? Why do so many Democratic men and women, at this particular moment, see the race so differently?

The latest round of polls provided fresh data, although few explanations. In a New York Times/CBS News poll, Senator Barack Obama had the support of more than two-thirds of the male Democratic primary voters, while dividing women fairly evenly with Mrs. Clinton. The latest Pew Research Center poll, a few days later, showed a similar pattern — Mr. Obama outdrawing Mrs. Clinton by two to one among Democratic men.

Surveys of voters leaving polls in the last Democratic primary, Feb. 19 in Wisconsin, were particularly striking: Mr. Obama drew the support of 67 percent of the men, including 80 percent of the men under 45. He and Mrs. Clinton divided the women 50-50.

Patterns that lopsided inevitably raise questions, as they did back when the “gender gap” was first identified and widely debated during the Reagan era. Ronald Reagan was often substantially more popular among men than among women, a finding that was usually attributed to his staunchly conservative domestic and foreign policies. In this case, though, the gender gap is within the Democratic Party and between two candidates who agree on a wide range of policies and philosophical positions.

And one of those candidates happens to be a woman.

Perhaps, some strategists suggest, this gender gap is more about women’s loyalty to Mrs. Clinton than about men’s reluctance to vote for a woman. By this argument, men are responding in droves to the broad appeal of Mr. Obama — the promise of change over experience — while women are hanging back in gender solidarity.

“If I were betting, the difference is much more driven by women being more sympathetic and connected to her,” said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster.

But Kathleen Dolan, a professor of political science and an expert on women in politics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, argues that the visceral reaction of many men to Mrs. Clinton suggests that something more is at work. “You could say men are just really captivated by Obama,” Ms. Dolan said. “But I’m not willing to say that’s what it is.”

Ms. Dolan noted that any Internet search of images of Mrs. Clinton quickly summoned “all sorts of visceral and emotional reactions to women, but attached to her” — like Mrs. Clinton in full attire as the Wicked Witch of the West. Ms. Dolan also noted that gender stereotypes were among the “most ingrained,” and argued that much of the news coverage — including whether Mrs. Clinton was too tough and whether she was crying on cue — played off of those stereotypes.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said that Mrs. Clinton clearly had a “likability” problem among some men that runs across party lines. For example, a recent Pew poll found that 67 percent of the Republican men (but only 54 percent of the Republican women) found Mrs. Clinton not likable personally; similarly, 43 percent of the independent men (but only 29 percent of the independent women) felt that way.

“A lot of men just don’t like her,” Mr. Kohut said. “And that gets us back to the argument, is it something about her, or is it her gender?”

Mr. Kohut says he thinks “it has to do with the way men react to Hillary,” not women candidates in general.

But Ms. Dolan wonders how people separate the candidate from the woman. From Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign on, she noted, Mrs. Clinton was confronted with a series of controversies around gender roles and stereotypes — from hairstyles to “co-presidencies” to “standing by her man” against charges of infidelity.

“The notion that she is a Rorschach test for where we are on gender issues was true on Day 1, when we met her, and it’s absolutely true today,” Ms. Dolan said. “So when people say it’s just her, I don’t buy it.”

Proving any of these theories — like proving theories about the role of race — is problematic. But long after the details of the horse race are forgotten, scholars are likely to be debating this. “For all the postmortems we do on 2008, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to separate out what is gender stereotypes from what is Hillary Clinton,” Ms. Dolan said.

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