Resident Fellow David Frum
In 1996, Bill Clinton and the Democratic party spotted an opportunity. Since 1980, American men and American women had increasingly parted ways politically. Men were becoming much more conservative; women much more liberal. Ronald Reagan won massively among men in 1980 and 1984, as did George H.W. Bush in 1988. But their margins among women were much, much narrower.
These trends opened a dazzling possibility: If only Democrats could raise their margins among women just a little higher, they might be able to win the presidency even if they continued to lose the male vote forever! The key demographic, the one they had to shift, was married women. Married women were much more inclined to vote Republican than their single sisters: indeed in 1992, the gap between married women and single women spread even wider than the gap between women and men.
And so the Clinton administration reinvented itself to appeal to married women, especially married white suburban women. They talked often about the environment, health care and education, themes that resonate powerfully with female voters.
They built a new image for the first family. Hillary began wearing softer and more feminine hairstyles and clothing. Bill frowned less and smiled more. They even took Chelsea on a camping trip in the summer of 1995: one of Dick Morris’s focus groups had rated camping the ideal family vacation.
In the end, it did not quite work. Bob Dole still won more votes from married women than Bill Clinton did. But Dole’s margin among married women was cut deeply enough to tip the women’s vote as a whole into the Democratic column. And that win among women in turn won Clinton re-election. For the first time since women’s suffrage arrived in 1920, a candidate won the presidency despite losing the male vote.
Clinton’s achievement is not unique. Similar trends could be seen in every advanced democracy, often even more dramatic trends. In the United Kingdom, for example, women had strongly backed the Conservatives in every election since 1945, while men almost equally strongly backed Labour. In the 1980s, that old preference reversed itself (ironically under a female prime minister).
Political scientists offer many explanations for women’s move to the left and men’s move to the right. Female workers are much more likely to hold public sector jobs than male workers, and the left is the party of the public sector. Parties of the left recoil more from war and conflict than parties of the right, and that too appeals to women voters. Women live longer than men and so end up depending more on government-provided health services. You can probably add half a dozen explanations of your own.
All of this is very interesting and very important for political professionals to understand. But when journalists report on these issues, they often add one more emphasis that is not so easy to understand: They treat women’s votes as more valuable than men’s votes. You will often hear it said, for example, that Stephen Harper has a serious problem with women voters. And that is true. Yet how often do you hear the equally true point that the Liberals have a problem with male voters? After all, for all Harper’s difficulty with women voters, he is the prime minister--and for all their success with women voters, the Liberals have been cast into opposition. Some of this is just media bias--some, but not all. For in an important way, women’s votes are more important than men’s, and not just because there are more of them.
Men have much stronger political opinions than women do, and they make up their minds much earlier in the election cycle. Women take much longer to decide. And that is why most campaign events and most campaign advertising is aimed at women rather than men: Women are more persuadable.
After the ‘96 election, journalist Christopher Caldwell asked a pollster specializing in women’s issues why women voters decide so much later than men.
The pollster replied, “Do you want the politically correct answer? They’re busy juggling both career and home. They’re pressed for time. The non-politically correct answer is that they decide late because they’re only marginally interested in politics.” Women voters are only about two-thirds as likely as male voters to read the newspaper. In 1996, only about half of female voters could name the vice president of the United States.
But to paraphrase the old joke about art, if these voters did not know much about politics, they certainly knew what they liked. And the surest tribute to Clinton’s success: George Bush assiduously copied the 1996 campaign when he sought the White House in 2000.
As for men: Sorry fellows, it is your fate to be taken for granted even by politicians.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.