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Men Are Seeing Roses. Women Are Gloomy. What Does That Mean for the Midterms?

‘Women’s vote’ isn’t a monolith, but grim outlook could spell trouble

A woman with her daughter casts her vote at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas on Election Day in 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A woman with her daughter casts her vote at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas on Election Day in 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Are women seeing the country “through a glass darkly” or are men seeing it through rose-colored glasses? The most recent Winning the Issues survey (July 30-31) found that 47 percent of men think the country is going in the right direction, compared to just 37 percent of women. That’s significant.

On the flip side, 44 percent of men say the country is on the wrong track, while more than half of women do. 

The political gender gap has been a factor in U.S. elections for decades, with women slightly favoring Democrats. But looking at the women’s vote as a monolithic, homogeneous bloc is a mistake, as Hillary Clinton learned the hard way.

While the Democratic nominee did win the women’s vote overall 54 to 41, she fell short in some key places. In many of the Rust Belt states, Trump outperformed the national result. That was the case in Ohio (49-46 Clinton-Trump), Wisconsin (53-43) and Michigan (53-42). 

While the “overperformance” numbers may seem small, the Rust Belt states were close elections. Even a 1 percent or 2 percent improvement for Trump helped him carry those crucial contests. A closer look at the exit polls shows that among married women, the margins were better for Trump.

At the national level, Trump lost married women to Clinton by 2 points. In the Rust Belt, Trump won married women by 14 points in Ohio, 3 points in Wisconsin and 5 points in Michigan. 

It’s Congress, too

But enough about presidential elections. The gender gap has been an important factor at the congressional voting level as well. From 1992 forward, congressional Republicans won the women’s vote just once, in 2010, and then only narrowly. (They tied once too, in 2002.)

While most of the presidential years involved a double-digit gender gap, midterms were different. Of the last six of those, only one saw Democrats carry women by double digits — in 2006, when they took back the House.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that Democrats have had their own gender gap with men to deal with — explaining, in part, Republican control of the House and Senate since 2010.

In our July Winning the Issues survey, we found a major disconnect between the genders when it comes to how they view the political landscape, starting with the congressional generic ballot test. In the larger electorate, men were evenly split in the generic ballot, while Democrats had an 11-point advantage with women.

The fact that there is a gender gap isn’t surprising, but an 11-point difference should be concerning for Republicans.

Just a number?

A deeper dive into the gender gap numbers shows an interesting dynamic at work with younger voters. Overall, voters aged 18 to 34 favor Democrats over Republicans for Congress by an 8-point margin, 48 to 40 percent.

Here’s the rub. Young men prefer Republicans 48 to 44 percent, while young women favor Democrats 53 to 31 percent — a 26-point difference in the generic. Among voters over age 35, however, the gender difference in favor of Democrats was just 8 points, significantly lower than their advantage with younger women.

In terms of the state of the economy, we also found that men were more optimistic about the economy (56-31) than women (44-35). Not only were young men more optimistic about the country in the same July survey, they were also positive about the economy by a 45-point margin of 68 to 23 percent.

But once again, young women took an opposite view, seeing the economy negatively 31 to 44 percent — a huge 58 percent gender gap. Among women over 35, the outlook was much more positive (46-33).

In fact, young women were the only gender/age group to have a negative view of the economy.

Picking their spots

When it came to issues, there were more differences, with men citing the economy as their top concern and women choosing health care and the economy. Men put their confidence in Republicans to handle the economy by 11 points, while women were evenly split between the parties.

Younger men gave Republicans only a 3-point margin, while younger women favored Democrats by 10. Women over the age of 35 favored Republicans by 3 points.

On health care, Democrats held an 11-point advantage with men and 16 points with women overall, with only minor differences across age.

As I’ve pointed out in this column before, cost of living is a huge concern for the electorate, and could be the sleeper issue of the 2018 midterms. While we may not fully understand all the dynamics surrounding the views of younger women voters, what we do know is that women of every age are usually financial decision-makers in the home. They’re concerned about the cost of living, which includes health care.

In that role, they are more in touch with economic household concerns. Among women, there is a higher percentage living paycheck to paycheck — 54 percent of them, compared to 49 percent of men. Among younger women aged 18 to 34, the percentage is even higher, at 63 percent, which may explain some of their negative views.

In one focus group of independent voters, a woman summed up her frustration with politicians who don’t talk to her seriously about economic issues. “I run my own economy every day,” she said.

Both parties would be wise to view women as diverse economic decision-makers and not merely “the women’s vote.” Clearly, there are differences between and among the genders when it comes to issues and how they see the state of the country.

That gap is even bigger between young men and young women.

The party that acknowledges and treats female voters as economic decision-makers who “run their own economies every day” is likely to do well in November. In the 2010 election cycle, Republicans won among women because they delivered an economic message and posed what became the central question in the election: “Where are the jobs?” The question connected with women and addressed their primary concerns.

The fate of Nancy Pelosi or the play-by-play of the Russia investigation may be getting headlines, but the party that offers the most effective economic message, especially with women, is more likely to come out of November in control.

Watch: Trump Says Wall Is Coming, Predicts a ‘Red Wave’ in November

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David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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