If Men Stayed Home.The Gender Gap in Recent Congressional Elections

By Mattei, Laura R. Winsky; Mattei, Franco | Political Research Quarterly, June 1998 | Go to article overview

If Men Stayed Home.The Gender Gap in Recent Congressional Elections


Mattei, Laura R. Winsky, Mattei, Franco, Political Research Quarterly


Inclusion of sex along with the core elements of the New Deal coalition has become more common in group-based analyses of partisan and voting blocs since 1980. We focus on the impact of sex on party identification and congressional voting at both the individual and aggregate level; special attention is paid to the 1994 midterm. Using data from the National Elections Studies (1980-1996), we show that like men, women in the total electorate were more likely to identify as Republicans in 1994 than at any other time. Although significant and stronger than in the past, the influence of sex on an individual's party loyalty still trailed that of membership in other groups. However, at the aggregate level, sex differences were clearly the most powerful force in shaping the balance of partisan identification. The evidence also shows that women's alleged low turnout did not account for the 1994 outcome. Differences in congressional voting behavior between women and men are observed most clearly in off-year, open-seat contests when the effects of incumbency and presidential coattails are absent.

Since the election of President Reagan in 1980, discussion of a gender gap in American politics has been particularly common. The term typically has been applied to the bivariate relationship between sex and party preference, whether measured by party identification or reported vote (e.g., Miller 1988; Welch and Sigelman 1992). In the 1994 midterm elections, the divergent choices made by men and women appeared to be largely the result of the distinctive pro-Republican behavior of "angry white males," who outvoted "ambivalent" women (Lake 1995). Subsequent coverage of the 1996 campaigns included predictions of a "showdown at gender gap" (Phillips 1996) or a possible "gender realignment" (Stark 1996). Others described the widening differences in opinion and partisanship between men and women as a "gender canyon" or the "gender chasm" (Borger 1995; Enda 1996). Election day exit polls showed that women were pivotal to President Clinton's second victory; while Dole held a slight (statistically insignificant) edge over the president among men, he trailed Clinton by 16 percent among women. In House elections, it was more of the same; Democratic candidates received majority support among women but lost to Republicans among men. The split result in the 1996 House and presidential races provided the first, full realization of a forecast made more than a decade earlier: "Shortly before the 1982 midterm elections Patrick Caddell, a polling analyst for the Democrats, remarked jokingly that the best guarantee of victory for the party would be if all men stayed home and only women voted" (Abzug 1984: 4). At about the same time, a Republican party official similarly quipped that the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment would have been the best way to assure his party's success (Baxter and Lansing 1983: 179).

To be sure, the perceived importance of the gender gap often has been shaped by political concerns and expectations.l However, as the number of references to sex or gender in political and media discourse increased, sex as a variable also has become a more prominent subject in empirical studies of elections and party coalitions (e.g., Keeter 1985; Wirls 1986; Erikson, Lancaster, and Romero 1989; Stanley and Niemi 1991, 1995; Shanks and Miller 1991; Miller 1991). While much attention has been focused on a gender gap in presidential elections, we concentrate in this study on estimating the impact of sex on partisan choice within the congressional electorate. In light of the stunning Republican success in the 1994 races and the party's ability to maintain House and Senate majorities two years later, it is of particular interest to understand the role that sex might have in explaining changes in recent congressional elections. Therefore, we investigate the linkages between sex, party identification, turnout and the vote, with a focus on 1994 and 1996. …

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