WASHINGTON -- Democrats think the recent surge of women voters backing President Barack Obama could be opening up a fresh gender gap that will yield dividends for races down the ticket. But Republicans think their rivals are overlooking the other half of the equation: the man vote.
Democrats certainly have something to highlight after two national polls found Obama leading GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney largely on the strength of women's support. A Gallup/USA Today poll of swing states, released Monday, found Obama statistically tied with Romney among men, but leading by 18 points among women. Similarly, a Pew poll last week put Obama's lead among women at 20 points.
Down the ballot in Senate contests, the gender gap remains, but with a switch. Majorities of men are going for the GOP candidate in many states, and Republicans suspect Democrats ignore that at their peril.
"When you consider that it's the Republican Senate candidates who are currently leading in Nevada, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Arizona and North Dakota -- with effective dead heats in Virginia, New Mexico, Florida and Wisconsin -- it appears that it's the Democrats who have a growing gender gap problem -- with male voters," said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In Virginia, for instance, where the approval rating of popular GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell recently took a hit when the legislature tried to pass a bill forcing women to undergo an invasive medical procedure before an abortion, women voters are buoying former Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine, who is essentially tied with former GOP Sen. George Allen, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Kaine, who is also the former governor, is ahead among women voters, leading Allen 45 to 37 percent. But Allen almost flips the balance with men, leading 45 to 40 percent. Moreover, Kaine was doing about the same or slightly better with women a year ago, before the abortion controversy.
Massachusetts tells a similar story. Democratic consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren and Republican Sen. Scott Brown are in a dead heat, with women favoring her by 10 points and men favoring him by 13 points.
"Clearly, [the Democratic] party's message of higher taxes, bigger government and more wasteful Washington spending isn't playing very well in states across the country," said Walsh, downplaying talk of a GOP "war on women."
Democrats would certainly disagree with that reasoning, but Walsh's point that Republicans are doing better with men is true. And while Democrats suggest that women are increasingly alienated from a GOP linked to recent harsh attacks on women -- such as Rush Limbaugh's demeaning of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke -- some analysts are not sure that it matters or that the "war" is moving the needle.
"It's been happening since the 2010 election," said Quinnipiac's Peter Brown, noting that in places like Ohio and Virginia the Democratic candidates were doing even better with female voters in 2011. He suggested the gap has more to do with Republicans, especially on the state level, carrying through on their election promises.
"Republicans elected governors who promised they would balance the budget and not raise taxes, and they did it," Brown said. "If you're not raising taxes, you're cutting spending, and they cut a lot of state programs."
The problem for many women, he said, is that those budget cuts have brought into question the future of various safety net programs, potentially removing fallbacks that families might need. "Women are more risk averse than men in general, and it shows on questions of economic security," Brown said, adding that culture war debates over abortion and contraception do not rank among the top issues for voters.
He agrees that the gender gap is a good barometer, however. "Think of it as a sliding scale," Brown said. "When the Republicans do well, they're breaking even among women and dominating among men. When Democrats do well, they're breaking even among men and dominating among women."
But trying to play gender politics can be complicated. "You can't oversimplify the gender gap," warned the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. "It's too complex and it's too long-lasting," he said, noting that it's created not only by views on so-called women's issues, but also on factors as diverse as environmentalism and economics.
Still, Democrats are doing what they can to move the barometer their way. They argue that the recent debates on contraception, abortion and Planned Parenthood are having the effect they would like.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter thinks that women are increasingly turned off by the GOP and could prove decisive in numerous Senate contests.
"The Republican Senate candidates around the country have embraced an agenda that aims to roll back access to basic health care services like cancer screenings and possibly even outlaw common forms of contraception," said Canter. "Republicans may be completely ignorant to the impact this could have on women's health, but these out-of-touch politicians are starting to see the political impact this Republican war on women is having in the polls."
In Ohio, the argument does look strong, with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown tied with Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel among male voters, but leading by 10 points overall thanks to a 17-point lead with female voters, according to a Quinnipiac poll last week. In Florida, a Quinnipiac poll shows Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson with a 14-point lead among women over the GOP frontrunner, Rep. Connie Mack.
Some analysts do see a prime opportunity for Democrats.
"It's certainly pushing some women toward the Democrats, and I think it's mobilizing a lot of women, which is probably even more important than trying to convert somebody," said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political scientist, referring to both state and national debates.
"I think it's probably getting a lot of women a lot more interested in the campaign, a lot more concerned with the campaign," Squire said.
That may give Democrats the momentum to counter the already motivated camps on the GOP side, such as Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians, who see the new federal requirement for employee insurance to cover contraception as an issue of religious freedom rather than health care.
"I think the people who see it as a religious freedom position were already on the Republican side of the equation and probably already interested, so I think this has generated a lot of motivation and incentive on the Democratic side that wasn't there before," Squire said. "To the extent that people thought 2012 was going to be a replay of 2010, this is beginning to dissuade them from that. The Democrats probably have to feel a lot better than they felt five or six months ago."
Squire suspects the public debates will change between now and Election Day, making it unclear what the final impact will be.
Sabato said that more involved women could still help the Democratic Party. "You want to get your activist base not only energized, but more energized than the other side, and issues like this undoubtedly help the Democrats to do that," he said.
And while he agreed that Republicans have the edge with men, Sabato noted he likes to make another point that Democrats are surely embracing.
"The fact is, women make up 53 percent of voters in the country. Who do you want on your side if you want to win elections?" he said.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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