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Editorial: Gender gap playing bigger role in elections

Nov. 12, 2012 @ 10:45 PM

Women have been voting in presidential elections since the 1920s, but rarely have their ballots been more decisive than last week.

President Obama won with a slim 51 percent of the popular vote, in part because he had strong support from women voters. According to tracking surveys by the Gallup Poll, women favored Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney 56 percent to 44 percent. On the other hand, Romney was favored by men 54 percent to 46 percent.

That 20-point gender gap is the largest ever measured by Gallup, which began compiling votes by subgroups in 1952. That is up from a 14-point gender gap when Obama was first elected in 2008.

The next highest gender gap was 18 points in 1984. In that case, men and women were on the same side, favoring Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale, but Reagan had a 28-point advantage with men and only a 10-point advantage with women.

Last week, the gender gap was one of the factors that made a difference, along with several other interesting factors. Exit polling shows that Obama gained support from women, the poor, people of color, urbanites, young voters and those who worship infrequently. Romney gained from men, rural Americans, senior citizens and those who worship regularly.

In West Virginia and Kentucky, where concern about the president's policies on the coal industry was strong, any gender differences were clearly more muted. Obama won only 36 percent of the vote in West Virginia and 38 percent in Kentucky.

But in Ohio, the gender gap and the urban-rural divide were more evident. Obama won only 16 of Ohio's 88 counties, but he won the big ones in the state's urban areas. For example, the president had a 236,000-vote advantage in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) alone, and ending up carrying the state by just 100,000 votes.

The gender gap has been there for a while -- women have supported the Democratic candidate in each of the last six elections, while men have favored the Democrat only in 1992 and 1996 when Bill Clinton was running.

But issues of great interest to women such as safety net funding, abortion rights, requiring healthcare coverage for contraception are all bigger factors than Republican candidates have recognized. Clearly after the results from last week, political parties and their candidates are going to be more mindful of these issues and listening more closely to the concerns of women voters.

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