Presidential Polls 2012: As Gender Gap Closes, Candidates Struggle to Learn What Women Want

Really, I’ve been overwhelmed by all the attention I’ve been getting from the presidential campaigns recently. When Mitt Romney mentioned “gender equality” as a foreign policy concern in the last debate, I literally nearly fell out of my chair in shock. (Mostly because although gender equality is an important factor in international relations, it’s not one that usually gets a lot of mainstream press attention.)

I realize I’m just one of the roughly 157 million women in America (and thus constitute approximately .0000000009% of the total number of women registered to vote), but, really, I’m touched to have both candidates gunning for my vote. 

And according to recent polls, it looks like I may not be the only lady in America feeling as if the presidential candidates are quite fond of me recently. Possibly due to his overt appeals to women in the last few weeks before the election, Mitt Romney now may be doing better with the infamous “women bloc” than he has all election season.

“What gender gap?” ask Nancy Benac and Jennifer Agiesta at the Associated Press. The most recent AP-GfK poll shows that Mitt Romney has “erased President Barack Obama’s 16-point advantage among women” while Barack Obama has “largely eliminated Romney’s edge among men.”  

Cue head-spinning from pollsters confused about the “churning gender dynamics” of this election.

Just  a few days ago, Rasmussen Reports suggested that the gender gap for Romney had decreased substantially, and Gallup suggested that women may be pushing Romney ahead in some key swing states. Nonetheless, Nate Silver at the New York Times suggests that, overall, the gender gap in this election is larger than ever.

The gender gap in elections has been a historical reality since 1980, and it has been generally widening over the past 40 years.

According to Silver, “The gender gap has sometimes been widest when there is a Democratic president running for re-election, as in 1980 or 1996 (or a Democratic vice president looking to ascend to the presidency, as in 2000). Women, apart from their tendency to vote Democratic, also seem slightly more inclined than men to give the incumbent party another chance. When the incumbent is a Republican, as in 1976 or 1992, this can mitigate the gender gap”

But, as both recent polls and Silver suggest, economic woes afflicting both men and women more equally than ever before may help eliminate this long-standing gap. Women’s “labor force participation rates are significantly higher than they were in the 1970s”; women made up 47% of all employed people over the age of 16 in 2011.

Romney has been focusing on economic issues as the “real war on women” all election season, a tactic which appears to be propelling him forward with women. According to the newest AP data, “A month ago, women favored Obama over Romney on the economy 56% to 40%. Now, the split has shifted to 49% for Romney and 45 percent for Obama. Similarly, Obama’s lead among women as the candidate who better understands the people’s problems has narrowed considerably, from a 58-36 Obama advantage last month to a 50-43 Obama edge now.”

Whether or not the gender gap has actually closed (likely not) or actually narrowed (quite possible; it was only 7 points in the 2008 election) will have to wait for exit polls. But, in the meantime, I have a few suggestions for both candidates.

1) Start connecting the dots between “social issues” and “economic issues.”

When it comes to issues like reproductive rights, health care, and pay equity, we must remember that these issues are not separate issues for women. Rather, they contribute significantly to women’s overall economic and physical wellbeing.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 1 in 5 women (ages 18-64) in America are uninsured. Moreover, women are more likely than men to work part-time, and thus not accrue the same employer-based health benefits. Adequate, affordable health care is a huge issue for all workers, but particularly for women, and specifically for single women who cannot be listed as a “dependent” on their spouse’s plan.

(Image from 2011 Commonwealth Fund's annual report.)

Health insurance companies routinely charge women higher premiums than men based on gender rating, despite federal laws prohibiting them from doing so. Health care reform is vital to women’s economic security, as access to health care impacts one’s ability to remain healthy enough to keep working.

2) Start seriously addressing contemporary, on-the-ground trends in women’s economic lives.

Lilly Ledbetter is something, but it’s not everything. The realities of women's work lives are shifting rapidly. In certain fields, women out-earn men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the overall wage gap remains a very real, but very elusive phenomenon.

It's unclear as to the exact causes of the gap, and even more unclear how to solve it, but it should be taken into account, as women have arguably become the backbone of the American economy.

It’s great — and essential — to run a presidential campaign based on improving men and women’s economic outlooks, but both candidates need to ensure that they are actually considering policy solutions to these kinds of long-standing, gendered economic inequalities.

3) Stop talking about gender inequality as if it’s a totally foreign phenomenon.

Start addressing the multitude of issues affecting people of all genders here, in the United States, today. Stop treating sexism as political fodder, and start taking it seriously. Start recognizing the complexity of these issues, and brainstorming innovative policy solutions based on today’s world.

I won’t lie — I snapped for Obama’s snarky jibe at Romney's dated policies.

But the truth is that both candidates should bring their policies up-to-date. The only way to do that is to stop pandering to a particular voting bloc based on what you think they want, and start finding out what they actually want, how you can help them actually achieve that, and why it's actually important for everyone that you do so.

Mitt Romney, Barack Obama: if Mad Men can aim to figure it out, so can you.