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Taking a Different Look at the Gender Gap

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Gallup/USA Today’s Swing States Poll showed that support for President Barack Obama surged among women ages 18 to 49 during the past month.

I have found over the years that when a narrative works its way into the collective wisdom, there is no way of changing it. So my goal here is quite modest: to get at least a handful of people to pause, take a deep breath and simply chew over the data a bit before using it to draw unshakable conclusions.

In this case, the conclusions involve two different Gallup polls and an interpretation about the role of women in President Barack Obama’s standing in a general election ballot test against likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page, with whom I sometimes team up on PBS’ “NewsHour,” noted in a recent piece about the March 20-26 Gallup/USA Today Swing States Poll that Obama leads Romney in 10 crucial states by 9 points, a dramatic reversal from Romney’s 2-point lead a month ago. (Gallup’s Frank Newport also writes about the data in his blog, “Polling Matters.”)

“The biggest change came among women under 50,” Page wrote with her usual accuracy. “In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney’s support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30 percent.”

I have been struggling with Gallup’s numbers on women, as well as with the conclusions drawn from them, because the firm’s national polling and Swing States Poll don’t fit together snugly. In fact, some of the data appear contradictory.

First, let’s start with the obvious. There is a gender gap and has been one for years.

According to exit polls, women were 7 points more likely to favor Obama in 2008 than were men (56 percent to 49 percent), 7 points more likely to vote for John Kerry in 2004 than were men (51 percent to 44 percent) and 12 points more likely to support Al Gore in 2000 than were men (54 percent to 42 percent).

Men and women often preferred different candidates, but even when they favored the same candidate, they did so by varying degrees.

One of Gallup’s blogs, “The Queue,” incorporates a couple of interesting tables in its April 3 posting (“More Data on the Women’s Vote”), including one that presents the data from five national polls and five Swing States polls from October 2011 to March 2012. One table includes data on women (in general and in two broad age categories).

As Page noted, the Swing States Poll showed that women ages 18 to 49 surged during the past month for Obama. He drew 49 percent of them in late February but 61 percent in late March. Romney’s support among those same women plunged, going from 44 percent to 30 percent.

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