With unemployment hovering above 8 percent and a burgeoning national debt, the economy was the central policy issue of the 2012 presidential election. But the battle for female voters, attention to “women's issues,” and the question of which party better understood the needs, values, and experiences of women also garnered substantial attention. Never before had women voters received so much media attention in a general election. A Lexis-Nexis search of major news publications found about three times more mentions of “women voters” in the context of the 2012 presidential election than in any prior election. The attention placed on women voters and “women's issues” appeared to have a significant influence on the outcome in 2012, an election that featured one of the largest gender gaps ever in presidential voting. Women favored President Obama by a margin of 55 percent to 44 percent, whereas men favored former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by a margin of 52 percent to 45 percent. The 10-point difference in the proportions of women and men voting for Obama represents the second-largest gender gap in U.S. history, just slightly smaller than the 11 point gender gap in voting for Bill Clinton in 1996.
Gender began to play an important role in the 2012 election long before the final votes were counted. In fact, the Democrats started to characterize the Republicans as engaging in a “war on women” months before Mitt Romney became the official GOP nominee. The “war on women” narrative came about and caught hold because of a series of remarks made by prominent Republicans. A prolonged and hotly contested Republican presidential primary race among several strongly conservative candidates who sometimes expressed extreme views provided initial material for the Democrats to exploit, and a series of comments by Republican U.S. Senate and House candidates fueled the “war on women” narrative throughout the fall of 2012.
On Election Night 2008, defeated Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin left the stage in Phoenix, Arizona, without being given a chance to speak the words she had prepared to deliver: “Now it is time for us go our way, neither bitter nor vanquished, but instead confident in the knowledge that there will be another day, we may gather once more and find new strength and rise to fight again.” Many believed that the 2012 presidential election would present that opportunity for Palin to fight again, this time at the top of the ticket.
Heightening speculation that she would run in 2012, Palin launched her own political action committee – SarahPAC – in February 2009. Five months later, she resigned as governor of Alaska, citing family needs and numerous ethics probes that she claimed were impeding her from doing her job. In November 2009, Palin released her autobiography, Going Rogue; just more than one month later, she signed a multiyear deal with Fox News. In 2010, Palin continued to make news as a pundit, reality-TV star, and top endorser for Republican candidates in the midterm elections. Her intentions with regard to the presidential race were unclear through much of 2011, despite her strength in some Republican primary polls. In May 2011, Palin launched her One Nation bus tour with a stop in New Hampshire. In August, she took the bus to Iowa one day before the Ames Straw Poll but continued to hedge on when or whether she was going to announce her candidacy. It was not until October 5, 2011, that Palin officially announced that she would not run for president in 2012.
Women voters have received special attention from the presidential candidates in recent elections primarily because of differences between women and men in their political preferences, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the gender gap. Statistically, a gender gap can be defined as the difference in the proportion of women and the proportion of men who support a particular politician, party, or policy position. In the 2012 election, Barack Obama received 55 percent of women's votes compared with 45 percent of men's, resulting in a gender gap of 10 percentage points.
A gender gap in voting has been evident in every general election for president since 1980. In each of the last nine presidential elections, a greater proportion of women than men has voted for the Democratic candidate. For example, in 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected, 56 percent of women, compared with only 49 percent of men, cast their votes for him, resulting in a gender gap of 7 percentage points – somewhat smaller than the gap in 2012.
Prior to the 1980 election, it was widely believed that women and men took similar positions on most issues, had similar political preferences, and voted in much the same ways. In other words, the assumption before 1980 was that gender did not matter much in voting. Today, the assumption is exactly the opposite – that gender does matter for politics. Women and men, in the aggregate, have different positions on many issues and tend to vary in their party identification and support for political candidates.
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