Are GOP political fortunes held hostage to the will of white women?
Allow to me to explain.
The so-called "gender gap" first came into the public mind during the Reagan years when it was noted that women were 16 percentage points less likely than men to support Reagan over Carter, compared to no difference in 1976, quite possibly due to Reagan's stated opposition to big government. Since minority women already voted (and have continued to vote) for the Democrats heavily in these elections at pretty much the same rate as minority men, the phenomenon has mainly been noted as a substantial gap between white men and white women.
For a while, the gender gap was irrelevant to the ultimate outcome of the elections. Both men and women voted for Reagan twice, then Bush in 1988 , then Clinton in 1992.
Then 1996 rolled around. For those who don't know what happened, I'll summarize: Bill Clinton and the Democrats took some Chinese money to help finance their campaign and then proceeded crush Senator Bob Dole by an 8.5% margin. Clinton did three points better than he had done against George Bush in 1992. Yet at the same time he managed to lose, or come close to losing the male vote to Dole, meaning that he actually performed worse among men in 1996 than 1992. His increased margin was entirely due to more support from women: in 1992 they backed him by 7 points, in 1996 they backed him by 17 points. Specifically, while white men backed Dole 49-38, white women supported Clinton 48-43.
So why does this matter to us?
Well, it's no secret that George W. Bush's infamous "compassionate conservatism" rose about largely because of his campaign's need to appeal more to white suburban women who didn't like the GOP's anti-government actions in Congress. Republicans in Congress like Newt Gingrich had been painted as mean conservatives who wanted to cut funding for, well, just about everything. Bush wanted to indicate that he wasn't like that, in fact he would increase spending even as he cut taxes and add even more inefficient government oversight to areas such as education.
Politically, Bush's pro-government message worked--barely. According to CNN Exit Polls, he managed to tie or beat Al Gore among white women in 2000 while maintaining a 24 point lead over white men. In 2004 his lead over white men was about the same while white women backed him by a substantially larger 10 points.
If the election was held today and only men voted, John McCain almost certainly would defeat Barack Obama. The challenge for conservatives and Republicans is to figure out how to erase the gender gap so we never fall into the same trap that Bush and the Tom Delay Congress did by acting as if they could win by acting like somewhat less generous Democrats.