Bromancing the vote
Male voters put Baker in the corner office. Now what?
CHARLIE BAKER SQUEAKED into the governor’s office by such a narrow margin that pretty much any demographic group can claim to be responsible for the last few votes that pushed him over the line. A shift of a few points in the vote among women, unenrolled voters, young people, urban dwellers, first-time homeowners, upper-income Democratic men, or even second-generation Freedonian immigrants in Berkshire County, and we would be admiring the Martha Coakley comeback story.
Amid these competing claims, men were the one group that was key in the sense of being a major departure from the norm. Typically, when pollsters discussed the gender gap, they meant the distance between the victory margins for men and women, so if the Republican wins men by 5 points and the Democrat wins women by 6, the gender gap is 11 points. If the same candidate wins both genders by 2 points, the distance between them is 0, so there is no gender gap. Recently, however, the vote among women has become so important that the gender gap is often used only to refer to women’s preference for Democrats.
Democrats have not been shy about exploiting the gender gap to their advantage, to wit the “war on women” messaging that Democrats have used over the last few election cycles against Republicans. This past election was different, however, with men playing an unusually large role in choosing the winner. Charlie Baker’s 19-point victory among men was the largest margin among men of any candidate in a competitive Massachusetts election since at least 2002, which is as far back as public polling or exit polling data is freely available. The margin of victory among males is made more notable by the shift in support among men over the course of the campaign. When the campaign started heating up in late August, men preferred Baker by a 5-point margin. But as the campaign progressed, Baker gained 14 points among men and picked up only 3 points among women, improving from an 18 point deficit among women in August to a final deficit of 15 points. The idea of overcoming a large deficit among women by running up an even larger lead among men is unique in recent Massachusetts elections.
One competing explanation we can eliminate is that men in Massachusetts have a problem voting for women, and that Coakley did as well as any woman could have done. This does not hold up to scrutiny. Senator Elizabeth Warren showed that a woman can win a ticket-topping race in Massachusetts, and run competitively among men. She lost to Scott Brown by just 6 points among men; Deval Patrick, by contrast, lost men by 13 points in his 2010 race against Baker.
Indeed, the size of the gender gap appears largely unrelated to the presence of a woman candidate on the ballot. The Patrick-Baker election in 2010 produced the largest gender gap in recent memory, a 37-point split. Two of the three smallest gender gaps featured women candidates on the Democratic side, including the Coakley-Brown contest in 2010.
It’s not that men never liked Martha Coakley. They liked her just fine earlier in the campaign, when her favorability was a sparkling 50 percent favorable, to 29 percent unfavorable, among men. Even by the end, her favorable rating was about even (42/45). But by the end, men saw Baker as a better manager with a better plan for the economy, and the vote margins showed it.
For Republicans, the issue for the future is whether relying on huge margins among men is a legitimate electoral strategy. Without Coakley on the ballot in four years, can Baker (and a Republican Senate candidate, should one materialize) try to run up huge margins among male voters again? Given the general preference of women for Democratic candidates, they may have no choice but to try.
If women are going to vote for Democrats by double digits, Republicans need to make up the ground somewhere. And margins for Democrats among women have been robust in recent years, with the exception being Martha Coakley’s performance in 2010. But for that outlier, women have tended to prefer Democrats by 15 to 25 points in recent years in close races. Baker showed that a 15-point loss among women is not a death sentence. But can it be reliably overcome by focusing on men?It may be that treating men as an afterthought is good strategy. Baker set a new record in terms of the margin among men for a Republican, and did it while appearing to focus on closing the gap among women. The idea of focusing a Massachusetts campaign on running up the score among male voters invites the contemplation of surprising realities.
It’s not immediately obvious what policies Baker could pursue that would be more likely to appeal to men. On most issues, men and women actually polled quite similarly during the past election. They rated the candidates very differently, but few few opinion-oriented questions showed meaningful differences between the sexes. Turning the focus away from women risks alienating the slightly larger female electoral bloc and further exacerbating the record-setting gender gaps that Charlie Baker’s last two elections have featured. With such a small margin of victory in 2014, even a minimal increase in women’s support for Democrats would be plenty to reverse the outcome Baker achieved this time around.