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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.

But if you look at the national Gallup poll numbers for women ages 18 to 49, in surveys conducted at virtually the same time as the February and March Swing States polls, you find that Obamaís numbers slipped ó yes, slipped ó by 4 points, from 59 percent in February to 55 percent in March. And Romneyís support among that same demographic group dropped by only a single point, from 37 percent to 36 percent.

Of course, it is the Swing States Poll that got all of the attention, and much of the commentary about it has concluded that the recent political discussion of birth control and funding for Planned Parenthood alienated women, who have fled Romney for Obama on the ballot test.

Intuitively, that seems right to me, but that doesnít stop me from asking obvious questions. Why donít the national polls show the same trend as the Swing States polls, particularly among female registered voters ages 18 to 49, as they are all conducted by Gallup? And if something really big happened during March, why is Obamaís support among women in Gallupís late March national poll identical to his support from them in the firmís January survey?

I canít explain the different results, and Iím not trying to. But I do think the contradiction is worth noting and considering.

Anyway, all of the attention on the changing views of women in this age group during the past month might miss a much larger, more important development that has gone largely ignored. Both of Gallupís national polls and Swing States surveys for USA Today confirm that during the past six months, the more dramatic change in presidential preference has been among men, not women.

In October, Gallupís national poll found that Obama led Romney by 14 points among women (54 percent to 40 percent). That margin shrunk only slightly, to 12 points, in March. But among men, Romneyís 16-point advantage in October shrunk to just 3 points in March.

In Gallup/USA Today Swing States polling, among women, Obama drew 51 percent in October and 54 percent in March, a gain of 3 points. Romney, in contrast, lost 6 points during the same period, dropping from 42 percent to just 36 percent.

Clearly, Romney canít win the White House if he is winning only 40 percent of female voters nationally or 36 percent of female voters from the 10 swing states. But itís equally true that Romney canít defeat Obama if the Republican carries men by only 3 points (as he does in Gallupís most recent national poll) or by a single point (as he does in the most recent Swing States survey).

Why have we heard so much about female voters and little or nothing about men? Iíd guess that it is because the narrative has been set (about the Republican ďwar on womenĒ), so journalists look for data and anecdotes that fit into it. Certainly, some of it has to do with the reach of USA Today.

We will see what other surveys show and whether opinions ó both menís and womenís ó change over time. I expect they will. Whatever happens, it is best to be cautious when interpreting polling data. Sometimes, things arenít as obvious as they seem.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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