Truth in Polls: How Junk Science Sustains the "Gender Gap"
Kellyanne Conway | 2000/10/13
I've got great news today--the “gender gap” is about to get its pink slip. The term, first popularized after the 1980 elections to describe the differences in voting preferences among men and women, has for two decades digressed from thoughtful discussion to use as a club against conservative candidates and causes.
The “gender gap” begins with a seemingly harmless, if not obvious, premise that men and women are different. Conservatives would agree, and celebrate those differences, since it was God, not a Republican or a Democrat, who first decided it should be so. It should surprise no one that men and women, who on balance think, behave, and respond differently to facts and circumstances, should do so as well at the ballot box.
As with many complex issues, the gender gap has been reduced by feminists and their pals in the media to a single issue: abortion.
Conventional wisdom suggests that women vote Democratic and men vote Republican because of the parties' fundamental differences on the matter of abortion. This is simplistic, false, and insulting to women, since they process a panoply of matters before finalizing their political choices.
It is true that on balance voting women prefer Democratic candidates to Republican ones. To conclude that this flows directly from positions on abortion, however, is to confuse causation with coincidence. In fact, plenty of pro-life Republicans like Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, have captured a majority of the women's vote, while avowedly pro-choice female Republican candidates have not, e.g., former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, who failed to garner 50 percent of the woman's vote in either of her statewide election victories.
The most important doubt about the prominence of abortion in voting comes from the women themselves. Even though women consider themselves to be Democrat over Republican by eight points, women are twice as likely (45 percent-21 percent) to describe their social and economic outlook as “conservative” rather than “liberal.” Only one-fourth of women now consider themselves “feminists,” a number that has been steadily declining for thirty years.
This is why, in my view, the major media play the debate between Republicans and Democrats rather than between conservatives and liberals. “Conservative” is a much more popular term than “Republican.” But “Democrat” establishes a more positive identity than “liberal,” even if it isn't an accurate indicator of most women's political opinions and ideologies.
A full 72 percent of women say that if their financial means allowed, they would stay home to raise their own children. My work has taken me to nearly every nook and cranny in this country, and I have yet to meet a loving mother who thinks, if given the option, that she could not or would not provide superior care to her child than a nanny or the Nanny State.
Palpable majorities of women support conservative prescriptions on key issues like school choice, crime and drugs, abstinence and adoption, and reductions in taxation and regulation.
The phrase “I am 100 percent pro-choice” no longer flows easily from the tongues of many women. In fact, an eye-popping 63 percent of women (and 59 percent of men) surveyed by the Los Angeles Times this year agreed with the statement “Abortion is murder” and a comparable number support making partial-birth abortion illegal.
The so-called hot button issues like abortion or equal rights are conspicuous by their absence in legitimate polls. The most recent installment of the bipartisan "Bullseye poll" that my firm conducts with a Democratic firm for National Journal's Hotline confirmed this. When asked to cite the most important issue this year, a sum total of 7 percent of women offered one of the following: pro-choice on abortion, gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights, or tobacco.
Women barely mention these matters, but a casual observer to the 2000 presidential campaign might believe that these issues dominate female voting. When is the last time a television pundit breathlessly proclaimed that “a breakdown of family values” is higher on the list of concerns than abortion? Yet the numbers demonstrate this.
Survey statistics also make clear that women are motivated by the “SHE” cluster of issues, a term my firm coined in 1998 as a short-handed way to recall the policy priorities for women. “SHE” (Social Security, Health Care and Education)–includes issues of primary concern for voting women--but ones that do not lend themselves as easily to hyperbole such as, in the words of another political observer, “gays, guns, and God.”
In addition to the tangible issues contemplated in the “SHE” orbit, women talk to pollsters about “the intangibles.” These include leadership, character, and integrity. This is not a creation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but a painful concern to the legion of folks yearning for a restoration of honor and order to major institutions.
For years pollsters have asked Americans a variation of the question, “Do you think that the country is headed in the right direction, or have we seriously gotten off on the wrong track?” Often, the response reflected the state of the economy. As I listened to voters in focus groups across the country it became clear that an expansion of that inquiry was in order.
Focus groups are qualitative, not quantitative, in nature. They lack the methodological purity or scientific backing of a survey. Still, focus groups are illustrative in that they allow the participants to express freely how they feel about what they think, an important undertaking that is naturally limited in telephone polls where often the respondent is asked to answer “yes or no,” “approve or disapprove,” “support or oppose.”
In focus groups, the conservative underpinnings of public opinion are often revealed. Careful attention to the cognitive processes, choice of language, and stated rationale revealed should compel more responsive, and more responsible, polling inquiries.
To this end, several years ago we began to separate the classic “right direction/wrong track” query, and with startling results. First, we would ask, “Thinking specifically about the economy for a moment, do you think that the economy in this country is heading in the right direction, or has it seriously gotten off on the wrong track?” Recently, those numbers have averaged around 68 percent right direction; 22 percent wrong track.
The very next question repeats the phraseology but changes topics. “Now, putting aside the economy for a moment, and focusing on the morals and standards of the country, in your opinion, are we headed in the right direction, or have we seriously gotten off on wrong track?” Amazingly, the numbers flip, with two-thirds of those surveyed saying “wrong track.” This figure has been especially high among women since we began asking the question two years ago.
It makes sense that if Americans have a bifurcated approach to some of these issues, so, too, must the polling inquiries that aim to uncover their opinions.
The shift away from womb-based politics and the drift toward cultural conservatism for many women is manifested at the ballot box. For all of the hysterical predictions about gender “canyons” and “abysses,” actual election results suggest that women are more consistent and more conservative as voters than has been reported.
Sixty-three percent of women voted for Richard Nixon for reelection in 1972. A majority of women (55 percent) voted for Reagan-Bush in 1984, despite the Democrats' nomination of a woman (Geraldine Ferraro) for vice president. A majority of women, 51 percent, voted for Bush-Quayle in 1988, something that Clinton-Gore did not accomplish four years later. History may show that women have helped Bill Clinton do a number of things, but get elected may not have been chief among them.
Indeed, women are pro-incumbents. Women stick with what they know, and in the absence of a compelling reason, they avoid rocking the boat politically.
True, a slim majority of women have favored Democratic candidates in congressional elections, but strong pluralities have consistently pulled the GOP lever as well. In the ten congressional elections held between 1980 and 1998, the percentage of women voting successively for the Republican candidate has been a flat line since 1980: 46 percent, 42 percent, 46 percent, 46 percent, 43 percent, 46 percent, 45, 47, 45, 47. Men, over that same time, have more dramatically shifted their allegiances, with their preferences for congressional Republicans resembling a cardiogram for an angioplasty patient: 51, 45, 52, 49, 48, 49, 48, 58, 56, 54. For the fourth consecutive time, and with women accounting for more than one-half of the total vote, a Republican-led Congress and a majority of GOP governorships are about to be elected.
The most remarkable feature of the “gender gap” in this year's election is Al Gore's trouble in attracting men. Many polls show Gore losing men by double digits to George W. Bush. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then the way to a man's vote is through his pocketbook. And men, by and large, view the given conservative candidate as protective of their assets and the free market system generally. To many Americans, “tax” is still a four-letter word, frequently appearing in polling data as a chief concern for men and women, although infrequently mentioned in reports about voter anger or motivation where, again, abortion remains peerless.
Does a gender gap exist? Yes. But does the gender gap exist in life? Yes! Ladies and gentlemen, I have a news flash: men and women are different! We have different hardware and different software. We relate to issues differently, we respond differently to external stimuli, to things that we see, that we read. I am not surprised that these differences manifest themselves at the ballot box. What is confounding is the way the same androgynous Left that tries to blur gender differences on everything from parenting to “equal rights,” insists on underscoring these differences through talk of a “gender gap.”
The real “gender gap” exists not so much among men and women as it does among women and women. Rather than meld together the 100 million eligible female voters into an indistinguishable mass, it is wise to examine the intra-gender gaps among different groups of women.
One can chart differences in female voting behavior and political attitudes according to their immutable characteristics, like age and race/ethnicity or their choices and circumstances, such as marital status, children living at home, living parents, household income, property or portfolio ownership, frequency of religious participation, and geography.
To demonstrate, black women vote Democratic nearly 90 percent of the time. Unmarried women tend to identify with Democratic rhetoric about “security” and “inclusiveness.” These women are more likely to agree that Uncle Sam should help provide and protect them. This can be true of younger unmarried women who are imprisoned by groupthink on our college campuses and older, widowed women who rely upon Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid and veterans' benefits.
The natural stations of life, including the three magic M's--“marriage, mortgage and munchkins”--move women toward a more conservative philosophy. A fourth “M,” mutual funds, is emerging as well, as a majority of women now are investors, either directly in the stock market or indirectly through 401(k) or pension plans.
The so-called “Soccer Mom” from the 1996 elections has just retired her cleats. “Mutual Fund Momma” is the woman to court this year.
Another group of “women to watch” is the “sandwich generation.” With women deferring child rearing until they older, and with people living longer, some 28 percent of likely voters include women who have both children living at home and parents still living. These women put themselves third on their “to-do” lists, focusing on issues as diverse as prescription drugs and school choice, but with little concern--or time--for abortion politics.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of sloppy polling has helped to cement the status of abortion and its offspring, the gender gap, as prime political fodder. The obscene obsession with polling in our political culture has engendered overly narrow and simplistic questions, a presumption of knowledge among those being surveyed, instant moment-by-moment polls, the junk science of Internet polls, and ultimately, a confusion of coincidence and causation.
The fixation with the “horserace” or head-to-head ballot, feeds this beast. The near-constant question posed by media polls of “Gore or Bush” focuses on who will win, rather than who should win. The media's duty is to inform an electorate, not predict its behavior, which has a perverse effect on creating or molding that behavior.
The most popular way to poll abortion politics, “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?”--is inadequate, if not unethical. Abortion is the one issue that combines religion, morality, science, medicine, law, politics, and gender. Fuller discussions with Americans have revealed that Americans are increasingly troubled with committing to a position on abortion unless they know the other “circumstances” (“Was she raped?” “How far along is the pregnancy?”).
In our polls, we probe abortion on a six-point scale that allows for the gradation in viewpoints that obviously exist. The question is phrased: “Please tell me which of the following comes closest to your view on abortion (1) Abortion should be prohibited under all circumstances; (2) Abortion should be allowed, but only to save the life of the mother; (3) Abortion should be allowed, but only to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest; (4) Abortion should be allowed for any reason, but not past the first trimester or first three months of a woman's pregnancy; (5) Abortion should be allowed for any reason, but not past the first six months, or second trimester of a woman's pregnancy; and finally (6) Abortion should be allowed for any reason, at any time, during a woman's pregnancy?”
A majority of women agree with one of the first three statements, which represent the range of what has been accepted as pro-life positions. Add to that the fourth position--those who would not allow abortion after the first trimester--and two-thirds of women's opinions on abortion are accounted for. Only 14 percent of the country agrees with the final position, which is essentially the (Bill)Clinton-(Hillary)Clinton-Gore gospel of “abortion anytime, anywhere, anyone.”
Politically, men and women are more conscious of issues than gender. The difference on issues is often one of intensity, not agreement. Bulging majorities of women may politely nod their head when presented with a pleasant-sounding concept, e.g., “campaign finance reform,” “gun control,” “choice,” but differ on the relative importance of that concept to them or their vote (is there really a contest between lower taxes and campaign finance reform?) or the specific policies they would choose to address these issues (e.g., school choice or teacher tenure). The proliferation of shoddy polling has come at a particular dicey time in American history. With game shows and gamely showiness in vogue, everyone wants to sound and seem smart about everything. Our instantaneous lifestyle, from Botox lunches to e-mail “conversations,” has created an expectation that anything worth hearing or having should be obtained in seven seconds or less.
Most Americans want to be informed, but not necessarily educated, on issues. We favor “news-you-can-use” material. This contributes to the primacy of polling in that a snappy sound bite or statistic can be conveyed succinctly and memorably. The poll today is the entire story. It is the subject. It is the predicate. It is the headline. It is the byline. It is a disgrace.
Most poll questions simply ask people to respond to feel-good phraseology without probing their underlying ideology. This invites confusion between causation and coincidence and proves that that which is meaningless is open to many interpretations of its meaning.
For all the fluctuations in the polls, one thing is really true one month before this year's election. Some 9 percent of likely voters remain firmly undecided, playing wait-and-see. These “uncommitted” faithful are mostly women, who traditionally reserve final judgment until closer to Election Day. Many of these women make a race difficult to predict. Eventually, this race will depend upon the last two or three things that impressed upon, believed to be true, or heard by these voters.
The ultimate success of conservatives in appreciating, not agonizing over, the gender gap, and in responding effectively to the nuances among men and women, will center in how the proverbial debate is cast.
If the debate is political, that is, “Right versus Left,” conservatives are disadvantaged. Liberal Democrats have more clever sound bites, better care tactics, and bigger goodies to give away.
If the debate is philosophical, that is, “Right versus Wrong,” conservatives benefit. This framework demands application of common sense, and a return to the brand of core values and order that form the basis of free will and personal responsibility.