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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

What’s Up with White Women in 2012? Nothing new!

White American Presidential Vote Choice

White American Presidential Vote Choice. Graph by Adam Hughes.

Gender has been in the news a lot this week, since women seemed to be vital to President Obama’s reelection. Maybe they were, but the white ones? Not so much, John Cassidy noticed in a New Yorker blog post the Friday after the election. Challenging the much-hyped gender gap, Cassidy wondered “What’s up with White Women”? They've headed the “wrong way,” he claimed: in the Republican direction, causing what Cassidy called a “reverse gender gap" with white women preferring Romney to Obama by 14 points in 2012 (56% to 42%). What's more, wrong-way white women chose McCain (53%) over Obama (46%) last time around, while 55% of white women picked George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004. So what's up?

A little bit of history would've taken the punch out of Cassidy's line of reasoning. What's up with white women? Absolutely nothing. White women have not reversed or changed course. In 2012 and the two elections before that, white women voted about the same way they've been voting since the 1970s: almost always for the Republican Presidential candidate.

Surprise that white women are doing what they’ve always done stems from distorting media spin on findings by polling organizations, such as Gallup, which suggests that women’s concern for women’s issues drives them towards the Democratic Party. Yet as political scientists have shown, the gender gap – that is the difference between women’s aggregate vote preferences compared to men’s – is explained best by differences in how the sexes see the size and role of government. Further, political scientists have shown that the gap opened up around 1980, when white men headed for the GOP, not when white women abandoned it for the Democratic Party. Way back in 1991, the venerable political scientist Warren Miller (gated article) cited work published even earlier, by his younger colleague Dan Wirls (gated article) in 1986, to wit: “the appearance of the gender gap in the Reagan years was not as much a function of a liberal, pro-Democratic growth in the partisan sentiment of women as a function of the sharply conservative pro-Republican move among men.”

What Wirls said in 1986 and Miller broadcast in political science’s flagship journal, the American Political Science Review, in 1991 should have become conventional wisdom, but it didn’t. So we repeat the (still not yet conventional) wisdom here. Using data from recent exit polls, NES data and other data, our colleague Adam Hughes created the graph pictured with this post to demonstrate the history of the gender gap. Like all polling data, these data are estimates of real votes (that of course are not recorded according to gender or any other personal attribute) to give us a sketch of the vote choices individuals make on Election Day.

The graph shows how, for a long time, white women have reliably voted more Republican than Democratic, though less dependably so than their white male counterparts. The graph also shows that the only year in which white women are more Democratic than Republican in their Presidential vote choice is 1996, which also happens to be the only year in which there is a large, unequivocal gender gap in the sense that more white women voted Democratic than Republican and more white men voted Republican than Democratic.