By now, you’ve probably heard that women were the deciders in last week’s election. Gallup announced that the contest had the “largest gender gap on record,” and CNN headlined an article ELECTION SHOWS WHAT WOMEN WANT. Marquee phrases like these seem to appeal to readers, which is presumably why editors write them. But that’s too bad, because they caricature complex demographic realities as a crude battle between the sexes.
There’s no denying that if you put all individuals with female reproductive parts into a single category, more of them voted for President Obama (55 percent) than for Mitt Romney (44 percent). Men, by contrast, went for Romney, 52 percent to 45 percent; hence the press’s conviction that an important gender gap exists. Women’s stronger Democratic tendencies have been a feature of presidential elections since 1980. Even when they went for Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, they did so by narrower proportions than men did. And beginning in 1992, they have consistently supported Democratic presidential candidates, a tendency that held in 2012. Further, in every major racial and ethnic group, a higher proportion of women than men voted for Obama. Add the fact that women vote in greater numbers than men do—they were 53 percent of the electorate this year—and you might be tempted to buy the media narrative about gender as the key determinant in presidential elections.
The truth, though, is that other demographic characteristics have considerably more significance. A widely reported example is marital status. Fifty-three percent of married female voters went for Romney. Among single women, by contrast, Romney was about as popular as an extra 20 pounds; a mere 31 percent supported him. The gap between married and single women, then, is wider than the male-female gap that the media have been touting. And it isn’t new; married women have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, with the one exception of 1996, when they preferred President Clinton by 4 percentage points.
Analysts offer a number of theories about the marriage gap: married women are more financially stable and therefore less reliant on government assistance; they care less about reproductive issues than about their pocketbooks and security; when they marry, they adopt their husbands’ political preferences. But the obvious reason for the marriage gap is that for several decades now, married women have become likelier to be white, educated, affluent, and older—demographic groups that leaned Republican in this election. Romney lost the black, Hispanic, and Asian vote, while he won the college-educated vote (though not post-grads), the votes of those making over $50,000 a year, and the votes of older Generation X-ers, Baby Boomers, and voters over 65. In other words, married women voted less as part of a sisterhood than as part of a cohort of white people holding college diplomas, earning more than $50,000 a year, and wearing reading glasses.
Similarly, unmarried women voted just the way you’d expect them to, considering their age, income, education, race, and ethnicity. A large number of unmarried women are single mothers—and minorities are disproportionately represented among that population. More than 30 percent of single mothers are Hispanic, and 28 percent are black, even though Hispanics are just 17 percent of the population and blacks 12 percent. Single mothers are also likely to be younger, less educated, and poorer than married women are. Sure enough, all these groups went Democratic in this election. The category “single women” also includes childless women in their twenties and thirties. These are by definition part of the “youth vote,” which went heavily for Obama, regardless of gender.
Men, too, have a marriage gap, though it’s a less dramatic one. Sixty-two percent of married men voted Republican, while 55 percent of single men voted Democratic. No surprise: single men, like single women, are more likely to have lower incomes, to be young, and to be black or Hispanic. The question is whether younger voters are only temporary Democrats. If long-term trends continue, the large majority of Millennials will marry eventually. At that point, they may change their political habits and vote the way previous cohorts of married men and married women have. Or they may remain Democrats, representing a permanent generational shift. It’s an open question—but one in which gender plays only a tangential role.
The chatter about the “largest gender gap on record” ignores one last surprising fact: women, like men, were less likely to vote for Obama in 2012 than in 2008. The gender gap expanded not because more women went blue but because so many men switched to red. Obama won the male vote in 2008 by 2 points; this year, again, Romney won among all men, 52 percent to 45 percent.
So yes, taken as a group, women vote more Democratic than men do. But that has little to do with their sex, which is why analysts would be wise to pay a little less mind to the gap.