WASHINGTON — Sorry, fellas, but President Barack Obama's re-election makes it official: Women can overrule men at the ballot box.

For the first time in research dating to 1952, a presidential candidate whom men chose decisively – Republican Mitt Romney – lost. More women voted for the other guy.

It's surprising it didn't happen sooner because women have been voting in larger numbers than men for almost three decades, exit polls show.

But men, who make up less than half the U.S. population, always have exercised power greater than their numbers and they aren't about to stop now.

When it comes to elections, males as a group are more influential because they show less party loyalty than women, who skew Democratic.

Despite all the focus on candidates courting Hispanics or the working class, men are the nation's ultimate swing voters; they're why Republican George W. Bush became president and Republican John McCain didn't.

Their move away from Obama this year expanded the voting "gender gap." It wasn't enough to determine the outcome, but came close.

So presidential hopefuls staring into the gender gap in 2016 might want to look beyond the usual controversies over "women's issues" such as abortion or the polling fads such as "Wal-Mart moms." Maybe it's time to pause and consider the fickle male. Maybe it's time to ask, "What do men want?"

In the voting booth, that is.

"I don't think we fully understand it yet," political scientist Christina Wolbrecht of the University of Notre Dame said about why men and women vote differently. But she said plenty of research on elections going back to the 1950s indicates it's not because of issues such as equal pay, birth control coverage in health plans or Romney's awkward reference to "binders full of women."

Paul Kellstedt has some ideas. A Texas A&M associate professor of political science, Kellstedt studies what American men and women want from their government and how that shifts over time.

Like Wolbrecht, he noted that the sexes aren't that different, at least when it comes to the issues.

Studies have found that the opinions that separate liberals and conservatives, even on issues such as abortion, don't divide the sexes much. Men and women are about as likely to fall on either side of those debates, and millions of each happily line up with each political party.

But there has been a consistent thread of disagreement for decades over what role the government should play. It's not a big gap, but it is statistically significant, about 4 percentage points or 5 points in many studies, Kellstedt said. As a group, women tend to like bigger government with more health and welfare programs; men lean toward smaller government that spends less, except on the military.

Sort of the social safety net versus rugged individualism. Or Obama versus Romney.

There are lots of possible reasons the genders see this differently.

Besides women's traditional role as family nurturers, they also live longer than men and so are more likely to rely on Social Security and Medicare. Women are more likely to be poor. They're more likely to be single parents struggling to pay for child care, education and medical bills. Men may feel many social programs are expensive and won't benefit them.

"Women tend to believe that government has a role to play, that it should be a partner in their life," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "Men tend to think it's been a good day when the government hasn't done anything bad to you."

When the nation as a whole drifts to the left or right on the big government-small government debate, the gap between men and women fluctuates. Men and women shift their views in the same direction, Kellstedt said, but men as a group tend to change their minds faster and move their views farther.

"The variation among men's opinions is larger," he said. "The flighty, moody ones are the men, not the women."

He said this difference of opinion on the role of government isn't big enough to entirely explain the larger gender gap in voting, however. "It's a little bit of a puzzle."

Women as a group voted Democratic in the past six presidential races, from 1992 through 2012, according to exit polls. The last time they decisively supported a Republican was Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984. The Reagan years were when Americans first began taking note of the "gender gap," as women's rights groups emphasized that female support for Reagan in 1980 was narrow while male voters overwhelmingly endorsed him.

Men lean Republican but play the field. In the past six presidential races, men voted Republican three times, Democratic twice (including barely supporting Obama in 2008), and essentially split their vote in the 1996 Bill Clinton-Bob Dole race, exit polls show.

This year Obama campaigned on giving a leg up to those needing education, health care or job training. Romney talked about shrinking government, except for the military, and said overgrown social programs were creating a culture of dependency. Their arguments fit the long-running fissure of the gender gap.

"Women stuck with Obama," said Karen Kaufmann, a University of Maryland associate professor who studies the gender gap. "We didn't see a lot of movement from women. The movement was really men going back to the Republican Party."

Women's support for Obama dropped just 1 percentage point from 2008; they voted for him by 55 percent to 44 percent this time. Men's support for Obama dropped 4 points, flipping them to Romney's side, by a 52-45 margin. Women were 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Obama than men were, according to the survey of voters at the polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks.

Gallup polling has tracked the gender gap since 1952. Gallup says this year's gender divide was 20 percentage points, the largest ever using its method of calculation.

The gender gap isn't just a white thing. It exists even among minorities that vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Obama got 96 percent of black women's votes, but 87 percent of black men's, compared with 76 percent of Hispanic women and 65 percent of Hispanic men, according to the exit poll.

"We group together this white male vote and sort of put that in the Republican ledger and we don't talk enough about all the various subgroups that fit within men and the multiple issues and currents that determine how they're going to vote," said sociologist Donald Levy, director of the Siena College's research institute.

"The Democrats aren't succeeding with some of these folks," Levy said. The Democratic Party needs to figure out why, he said, the same way "the Republicans are doing some soul-searching about how they can appeal to women."

___

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