Gender gap favors democrats when female-headed households increase

10/19/04

Over the past quarter-century, the gender gap has favored the Democratic Party whenever the economy slumps and the number of women-headed households increases, according to a Penn State political scientist.

Women who run households - whether single, divorced or widowed -- are near the bottom of the socioeconomic scale - and are more vulnerable to economic downturns, says Dr. Suzanna L. De Boef, associate professor of political science. Because they perceive the Democratic Party as more likely to provide social programs favoring female-headed households, women in this category gravitate toward Democratic candidates.

"Our findings reveal that, from the time political rhetoric takes a conservative turn, the gender gap shifts toward the Democratic Party about a half-year later," De Boef adds.

The Penn State researcher cites a New York Times/CBS News poll taken shortly before the 2000 election showing that, while married women preferred George W. Bush over Albert Gore by a margin of eight percentage points, unmarried women picked Gore over Bush by a margin of 35 percentage points.

"When women are most likely to be economically independent from men - holding better and, on average, high-paying jobs - they find themselves more like men, but also freer to develop their own perspectives which may be similar to or different from those of men," she notes. "Women who head households have been inclined to back Democratic candidates, even during the last two decades of the 20th century, when support for the Democrats declined among both men and women."

The gender gap will likely remain a recurrent feature of the American political landscape, with the potential for shaping election outcomes, especially in close races, De Boef says.

The Penn State political scientist is co-author of the paper, "The Dynamics of the Partisan Gender Gap," which appeared in a recent issue of the American Political Science Review. Her co-authors are Dr. Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier, professor of political science at Ohio State, and Dr. Tse-min Lin, associate professor in the department of government at the University of Texas.

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