Gender Difference in National and State-Level Polling in the 2012 Election
October 27, 2012
(polls reported in this post through Oct 24, 2012)
To say that gender is an important factor in the election is to state the obvious. Beginning as early as last winter, policy debates and legislation affecting women have been a central theme of contention in the campaign, and of course the question of which candidate has an advantage among women voters has become a central preoccupation of poll watchers.
This is nothing new (see the scholarly references in the separate post at right). There has been a noticeable, if variable, gender difference in presidential elections since at least 1992. In 2012, however, the voting intentions of women have taken on added significance because of the salience of women’s issues and because the race in the Electoral College is so close. As a result, each new poll showing a larger or smaller gender difference evokes a cycle of confusing discussion and speculation as to whether the historical “gender gap” has come to an end (for example: here , here, and here).
In this and other posts, we hope to clarify matters.
Technical Details About Our Data Collection
Please see our separate posting on the Technical Details that guided our data collection. In addition, at the end of this post, you will find the total number of national polls included in our calculations for this post.
The Overall Standing of the Candidates in National Polls
It is useful to begin with the overall state of the national race, as shown in the graphic immediately below. The figures will be familiar to poll watchers, revealing four phases in the presidential campaign. First, during the primary season, characterized by fraternal attacks among Republicans, Obama enjoyed a comfortable lead of four to seven percentage points in polls testing his standing against Romney. After April, the race settled into a stable pattern in which Obama led Romney by a margin of 51/49 until September. In September, Obama moved into the lead, fueled (we think) by the enthusiasm generated by the Democrats’ convention. In October, the situation reversed, a result (we think) of Obama’s dismal performance in the first Presidential debate on October 3rd. As of October 24 in our database, the race is essentially tied.
For our purposes, the central question that arises from these trends is whether the shifts and turns during these phases of the horse race are the result of a gender difference. More specifically, as many have speculated in the press and blog worlds, we might ask: did Obama lose his lead because of a decline in support among women?
Gender Difference in National Polling
The answer is no.
As the graphic below shows, Obama has led among women nationally in every month during 2012, averaging 56.7 percent among women for the entire year (with Romney obviously averaging 43.3 percent).
This gender difference among women for 2012 (Obama leading Romney by +13.1) is exactly the margin that accompanied Obama’s victory in 2008.
Further, to the extent that Obama has a gender problem, it occurs among male voters. The two horizontal lines in the graphic display the percentage among women (top line) and men (bottom line) that Obama won in 2008. As the lines make clear, he has fared worse among men this year than he did in 2008. Specifically, Obama is averaging -3.8 percentage points among men for the year compared to 2008. Among women, it is a fairly trivial -.66 percent (55.6 percent in 2012 versus 57 percent in 2008).
Taken as whole, 2012 has been a year in which Obama has lost ground among men –not among women.
But that’s where the good news ends for Obama (to the extent that women provide the margin of victory for Democrats). In October, he lost ground among men and women by the same amount (2 percentage points compared to September). His standing of 46 percent among men and 54 percent among women is the lowest for any time during the year. More worrisome for Obama supporters, the margin among women of +8 percent nationally in October has dropped below the level that has provided victory for Democratic candidates in the past (Obama won with +13 points among women in 2008, compared to +11 for Gore in 2000 and +3 for Kerry in 2004). [update 10/30 in answer to reader question. Obama's lead among RV's only in October is 10.1%]
In summary, contrary to the speculation that accompanies one or the other poll released almost daily, Obama has a clear lead nationally among women as of October 24. This lead is smaller than victorious Democratic candidates of the past, however. And of course the crucial question is whether the same dynamic characterizes current polling in states that are crucial to the Electoral College outcome.
How is Obama faring in the crucial swing states? What about Ohio? Or, as we shall see: Colorado and Virginia?
We address these questions in subsequent posts in this series.
Summary Statistics for National Polls Reported in this Post
Number of national polls per month
Number of polls from following survey organizations (does not include daily tracking polls)