The voting gender gap that’s been with us for three decades is on track to rear its head yet again on Tuesday—and it could be even more potent this year. As Nate Silver put it on October 21 , “If only women voted, President Obama would be on track for a landslide re-election.” Surveying ten of what he defines as high-quality polls, Silver found an average eighteen-point gender gap, with Obama up nine points with women and down nine with men. One poll found the gap was as wide as thirty-three points.
Since that time, this trend has continued. An ABC News/Washington Post poll  found Obama outdoing Romney among women by eleven points on October 25. And just yesterday Pew’s national poll found  Obama edging ahead of Romney thanks in part to increasing support from women, who favor him by a thirteen-point margin, up from six points but a week ago. (Don’t believe the post-first debate media hype  that Romney had erased the gap.)
But what makes this year different are the forces driving the trend. Despite the conventional wisdom, women don’t tend to vote based on their own unique set of issues, social or otherwise. Historically, what’s driven the gap is social spending, not what we typically describe as “women’s issues.” Women are far more likely  than men to support generous social spending on the safety net, while men tend to be primarily concerned with the deficit.
Yet in this campaign cycle, when Gallup asked female registered voters  in twelve swing states, “What do you consider the most important issue for women in this election?” what many see as the quintessential social issue, abortion, was by far the most common answer, with 39 percent of women bringing it up. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, abortion didn’t rank at all for men when asked the same question about their gender. (Dear gentlemen: don’t forget that it takes two to tango—and end up with an unwanted pregnancy.) Women are also far more likely to trust Obama on another issue considered primarily their concern, that being access to birth control: 57 percent of them think Obama will ensure better government policies on contraception, versus 34 percent who trust Romney. Gallup reports that these results reflect women’s views nationally.
This is echoed in a poll conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies  of 1,000 likely voters in October at the request of the Rad Campaign. The pollsters asked respondents by phone if they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Lawmakers in Washington have been engaging in a War on Women, by taking away women’s rights to contraception, denying equal pay for equal work, and curbing a woman’s right to choose.” Big numbers of women across the political spectrum agreed: 68 percent of liberal women, 63 of Democrats and 54 percent of independents. Even about a third of Republican women agreed.
As Celinda Lake, president of polling firm Lake Research Partners, previously explained to me , these so-called social issues have “really galvanized women” in this election cycle. It would take living under a seriously large rock to ignore the fact that women’s reproductive rights—from transvaginal ultrasounds to debating access to contraception to trying to nail down a definition of rape rape—have been top on Republicans’ minds. This got their attention. Unmarried and younger women weren’t paying much attention at first, but then their interest in the election jumped about twenty points with all of these headlines, Lake said.
Yet it’s also important to remember that the ability to access contraception and make choices over one’s body has a huge economic impact on women’s lives. In a 2004 survey of over 1,200 abortion patients , the Guttmacher Institute found that women’s most frequently cited reasons for seeking abortion were that having a child would interfere with education, work or the ability to care for dependents or that she couldn’t afford a baby. Guttmacher recently found  that women use contraception for similar reasons: the majority reported it allowed them to better care for themselves or their families, support their families financially, complete their education or keep or get a job. Little wonder when the costs of having a child are so high: raising a 1-year-old in a middle-class, two-parent household comes to  over $15,000 a year. When women tell pollsters that abortion and government policies relating to contraception are high on their minds in this economy, those concerns can’t easily be divorced from “traditional” economic issues.
Yet now that politicians have gotten women’s attention by debating what they can and should do with their bodies, they’ll still have to answer to those traditional economic concerns. The next three issues on women’s list when Gallup asked were jobs, healthcare and the economy. Meanwhile, women don’t mention the deficit but do make heavy reference to the social safety net, bringing up Medicare, Social Security and education. These are the “compassion issues” women voters tend to support over men when they rally around spending on the social safety net, according to a research paper  studying the gender gap over time.
While jobs and the economy are men’s first two priorities, the federal budget deficit/having a balanced budget is number three. Men tend to be preoccupied with federal spending. Women don’t even rank that issue—they care about putting people back to work and caring for our vulnerable. As the researchers put it, “A policy change that might be seen as too liberal for the average man might seem like the correct amount of spending to the average woman.” In this cycle, this phenomenon is likely informed by the sluggish job growth women have seen in the recovery and the overall knowledge that caring for the elderly, sick and vulnerable inevitably falls to their shoulders.
We can only look into crystal balls and wait for voters to actually show up to their polling places tomorrow to really know how women will vote this year. But all signs point to a strong gender gap in Obama’s favor, one that could push him over the line.
For more on what's at stake for women in this election, check out Katha Pollitt's latest, "Ladies, Don't Fall For Moderate Mitt !"