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The gender gap: Biology is not political destiny

Even Republican candidates like Charlie Baker can win elections without winning a majority of women.Associated Press/file 2014

Are you voting for Charlie Baker for governor, sweetheart? He’s been trying hard to win your support, in part through the familiar technique of highlighting those who support him already. For if there’s one thing the Republican gubernatorial candidate wants you to know, it’s that plenty of women do indeed support him.

There is a "Women for Charlie" Facebook page and a "Women for Charlie" photo gallery. There was a "Women for Charlie" reception in West Roxbury on Tuesday night, and a "Women for Charlie" fund-raiser in the South End last month. "Women for Charlie" phone banks organize call centers every Wednesday night. There was even a recent drawing for "a basket of W4C goodies," complete with "Women for Charlie" T-shirts and earrings. Needless to say, there is a "Women for Charlie" link atop every page of the Baker campaign website.


All of which makes good sense — assuming you believe that biology is political destiny, and that a candidate who loses the women's vote loses the election.

But biology isn't destiny, and it's patronizing or cynical to act as if it were. Candidates win elections all the time without winning a majority of women. Even Republican candidates. Even in Massachusetts.

For decades, pundits and politicos have harped on the "gender gap" in American politics, which is widely understood to mean that Republicans are crippled on Election Day by their lack of appeal to women. It is true enough that women (especially unmarried women) are more likely to vote for Democrats. But it's also true that men are more likely to vote for Republicans — a counter-gap that has spelled defeat for any number of Democratic hopefuls. At the presidential level, Democratic candidates have attracted more women's votes than their GOP opponents in each election since 1980, yet Republicans have won the White House in five of those nine races.

The gender gap hasn't been fatal to GOP hopes at the state level, either.

"In every governor's race of the 1990s, the male vote for the Republican candidate exceeded the female vote for the Democratic candidate, thus producing a net GOP advantage," wrote Elaine Kamarck, a former senior staffer in the Clinton White House, in a 2003 CommonWealth magazine analysis of Massachusetts politics. A Boston Globe story in September on how Baker and Martha Coakley are waging a "war for women's votes this fall" was accompanied by a bar graph that usefully broke down the vote by candidate and gender in six hard-fought marquee Massachusetts races since 1998. In four of those statewide races, the candidate who won more men's votes won the election — and three of the four were Republicans. Only twice did a Democrat win without a majority of male voters: when Governor Deval Patrick turned back Baker's challenge in 2010 and when Elizabeth Warren successfully ousted Senator Scott Brown in 2012.


So why the obsessive focus on the GOP's need to do better among women? If the goal is to win elections, Republicans would presumably do just as well to play to their strength, concentrating on boosting their share of men's votes even higher. Alternatively, Democrats should be fretting about their apparent man problem at least as much as the other team keeps agonizing over its supposed woman problem. Where is the "Men for Martha" Facebook page? Why isn't she grabbing every opportunity to explain why a Coakley administration will be a boon for Massachusetts men?

Barbara Anderson, the intrepid director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a battle-scarred veteran of Massachusetts politics going back to the fight for Proposition 2½, strongly backs Baker for governor. But she refused to attend a recent "Women for Charlie" event, she writes in the Salem News, "because I don't do events that begin 'Women for' anyone." Anderson doesn't want politicians to see her first and foremost as a member of her sex, or to be pandered to on that account. Why would anyone? She and Coakley agree on nothing and have little in common "other than the reproductive system," Anderson writes. "So why would political consultants assume other women would support either one of us as if we were interchangeable?"


Exactly right. The gender gap is real, and it's likely to be a feature of American politics for years to come. It is one of many discrepancies that make the sexes interesting, maddening, or perplexing to each other. But it is only a tendency, not even a rule of thumb. Plenty of women vote Republican; plenty of men vote Democratic. There are far stronger influences on voting choices than the presence or absence of a Y chromosome — political ideology, religion, and marital status, to name just three. Your gender is a silly reason to vote for any candidate. It's an even worse reason for any candidate to ask for your vote.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.