Saturday, February 16, 2008

Narrowing the Gender Gap

The gender gap–the tendency of women to vote more often for Democrats and men to prefer Republicans––has been a feature of American politics for decades. On Super Tuesday pundit, David Gergen, captured what many considered a truism when he referred to the Democrats as the "mommy party" and the Republicans as the "daddy party." But by the time the Potomac primary was over this week, even that seemingly immutable feature of America’s political landscape had begun to shift. As Obama expanded his already large margin of support among Millennials, his surging support also earned him an even split with Clinton among women. Now a survey conducted last month by the Millennial Strategy Program of Frank N. Magid Associates demonstrates how the emergence of the new Millennial Generation (voters 25 years old and younger) is closing the gender gap in American politics. .

The phenomenon of a wide difference in party preferences and political attitudes by gender stemmed from the rise of the Baby Boomer Generation in the late 1960s. When idealist generations, such as the Boomers today and the Missionary Generation about eighty years ago, dominate the electorate, the political debate tends to focus on divisive social issues. The battle over women's suffrage at the turn of the 2Oth century is an early example. More recently, the debate has focused on the basic societal, familial, and economic roles of the sexes, along with educational and career opportunities for women, and reproductive issues.

Reflecting these debates, Boomer men and women early on developed very different political attitudes and preferences that persist to this day. According to the Magid study, a plurality of male Baby Boomers (39%) are self-identified Republicans, while just under a third call themselves Democrats (32%). By contrast, half of female Boomers (50%) say they're Democrats and only 20 percent are Republicans. Similarly, by a ratio of 1.75:1 Boomer males say they are conservative rather than liberal or progressive (35% vs. 20%). On the other hand, slightly more Boomer females call themselves liberal or progressive rather than conservative (25% vs. 23%). Majorities of Boomer women say they will vote for Democratic presidential (56%) and congressional (51%) candidates, while the voting preferences of Boomer men are split about evenly between the two parties.

Millennials, however, are a "civic" generation, like their GI Generation grandparents and great grandparents, so their political agenda is focused on achieving societal unity and in revitalizing political and government institutions rather than advancing moral causes and social issues. This change is reflected in the political attitudes and beliefs of Millennial males and females, whose voting behavior is much more similar than is the case with either Boomer or Gen X men and women. Among Millennials, for instance, most males and females have supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the early primaries and caucuses, while within older generations, men have tended toward Obama and women toward Clinton.

The Magid survey confirms this decreasing distinction between males and females among the Millennial generation. A solid plurality of female Millennials identifies as Democrats rather Republicans (43% vs. 14%), as do a somewhat smaller number of males (32% vs. 21%). Millennial women overwhelmingly indicate that they will vote for a Democratic rather than a Republican presidential candidate (52% vs. 16%) and a Democratic over a Republican congressional candidate (49% vs. 16%). Most Millennial men also say they would vote for Democratic over Republican presidential (42% vs. 31%) and congressional (41% vs. 29%) candidates.

Regardless of gender, most Millennials call themselves liberals or progressives rather than conservatives. Twenty-eight percent of Millennial males think of themselves as liberals and progressives compared with 20 percent who call themselves conservatives. Among females, 31 percent are liberals or progressives and 13 percent conservatives.

A new civic generation, the Millennials, is on the verge of giving American politics an extreme makeover. Unlike the Baby Boomers, who remain sharply divided by ideology and gender, the young men and women of the Millennial Generation will be working and voting together to change America and its government.