There has long been a disparity between women and men in their voting patterns — a phenomenon first identified and named the “gender gap” during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
This year, however, ginning up female support has become an imperative for Obama in his reelection bid. Across the electoral map, the Obama campaign is banking on women to offset an expected loss to Romney among men.
In few places, if any, does that effort appear to be succeeding as well as it is in the Old Dominion. That is in part a reaction to heavy-handed Republican moves on reproductive issues, but it also reflects an apparent affinity that women feel with Obama on economic concerns.
Gender politics have flared elsewhere — in Missouri, for instance, over GOP Senate nominee Todd Akin’s comments about rape, which have jeopardized his party’s prospects for picking up that seat. Nationally, even the long-settled question of contraception has been back in the news, as the two parties have waged war over whether it should be covered under the national health-care law that is Obama’s signature accomplishment.
But the gender gap in Virginia is more than twice as big as the national one, according to recent polling. The current numbers mark an even starker contrast from the presidential election four years ago, when men and women in Virginia voted almost identically in favor of Obama.
And in the 2009 governor’s race, majorities of men and women supported Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), despite the Democrats’ efforts to make the race a referendum on gender issues that included the unearthing of McDonnell’s master’s thesis, which described feminists and working women as “detrimental” to the family.
Support from women is also fueling the rise of Democratic Senate candidate Timothy M. Kaine, who has moved into an eight-point lead over his fellow former governor, George Allen (R). The difference with men, however, is not as pronounced as it is in the presidential race: Kaine has a 15-point advantage over Allen with women, and he is tied with men.
A shift over three years
So why do men and women in Virginia see this year’s election so differently?
Democrats and their allies say that it is partly the result of what has happened in Virginia since 2009, including an effort by Republicans in February to require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound with a vaginal probe.
Virginia legislators ultimately backed off somewhat, passing a version of the bill that mandated a less intrusive procedure. But that was not until after the controversy had produced a mother lode of material for late-night comedians — and, some believe, cost McDonnell his shot at being Romney’s running mate.