'Women's Issues' Not the Cause of the Gender Gap, Expert Says

President Barack Obama's reelection campaign has lost some of his advantage with women voters since the first presidential debate on Oct. 3. To win those voters back it has devoted some attention to the issues of equal pay, abortion and contraception. Political scientist Christina Wolbrecht, an expert on women and politics, argues, though, that the gender gap is not largely driven by those issues.

Wolbrecht, associate professor of political science at University of Notre Dame and author of The Politics of Women's Rights: Parties, Positions and Change, was responding to a post by New York Times election forecaster Nate Silver.

Wolbrecht took issue with Silver's contention that the gender gap is at "historic highs" and attributable to abortion and other social issues. While it is easy to expect that since "women's issues," such as equal pay, contraception and rape, are campaign issues, must be contributing to the gender gap, political scientists have reached a different conclusion, Wolbrecht wrote Tuesday for the political science blog, Mischiefs of Faction.

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Namely, "the gender gap has been a persistent feature of presidential elections for far longer than is widely recognized, that men, not women, bear much of the responsibility for the gender gap, and that economics and social welfare, not women's issues like abortion, are the dominant cause."

The gender gap, that women are more likely to vote for Democrats and men are more likely to vote for Republicans, did not emerge suddenly after 1980, when Republicans first took a clear pro-life stance in their platform and Democrats were the pro-choice party, Wolbrecht notes. Rather, the gender gap has been a common feature of American politics since the end of World War II.

Additionally, the gender gap was largely driven by men, not women. During the Great Depression, the Democratic Party built a large majority. That majority began to erode more because of men, than women, switching allegiances to the Republican Party.

"Repeated research has failed to uncover evidence that women's issues, including abortion, cause the gender gap," Wolbrect writes.

So why did women more often than men stay with the Democratic Party? The answer, Wolbrecht says, is complex, and requires "careful attention to race, region, and religion, among other things." But "a big part of the answer" appears to be women's support for social welfare programs, such as aid to the poor and elderly.

Wolbrecht's post suggests that Obama's campaign might be better served by focusing on poverty and health care than on "women's issues" if he wants to regain the significant advantage he had with women voters.

Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will suggested Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that Obama may even be turning women off by focusing on "women's issues."

Romney's gains among women voters, Will said, "represents a huge recoil by professional women with college degrees against the condescension of the Obama campaign, which says ... essentially, 'don't you trouble your pretty little heads about these men's issues like unemployment and all the rest, worry about contraception,' which has been a constitutional right for 47 years. It's a distraction -- the entire 'war on women' trope, and I think professional, educated women find it offensive."

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