In mid-October, Republican Gov. Scott Walker answered a journalist’s question about Democratic challenger Mary Burke’s superior poll numbers among women, minorities and young people.
How did he account for that?
"Some of those issues are just historic patterns, they’re not unique to me," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial board Oct. 14, 2014. "If you look at Republican-Democrat (numbers) you could make -- in the last dozen or so elections -- similar parallels to that. So there’s not a huge gap from where Republicans have been in presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections."
He added: "For a lot of this it’s a matter of getting our message out, getting our story out. We’re not conceding any votes in the state of Wisconsin."
With several gender-based issues at the heart of each side’s TV advertising, and experts saying the Nov. 4, 2014 election is likely to come down to turnout efforts on each side, we wanted to check the historical record on the so-called gender gap and Republican candidates.
Are Walker’s 2014 poll numbers among women and men pretty similar to the gender gap seen in past Wisconsin elections for GOP candidates?
For this pre-election analysis, we turned to the exit polls taken of voters as they leave the voting booth after each election. We examined comparable races in recent Wisconsin history, as well as polling data in the 2012 and 2014 campaigns in Wisconsin.
Defining the gap
The gender gap -- Republicans doing better with men than women; Democrats doing better with women than men -- is a feature of contemporary politics. Within each party, men and women don’t vote that differently. But the Democratic Party has fewer men among its supporters; the Republican Party has fewer women.
One way to measure the gender gap is to simply take the difference between how a candidate does with men and how that candidate does with women.
In the 2012 recall race, Walker got 59 percent of the male vote and 47 percent of the female vote -- a gender gap of 12 points. (His opponent Tom Barrett got 40 percent of the male vote and 52 percent of the female vote, also a 12-point difference).
That 12-point gender gap was the largest in a Wisconsin U.S. Senate or governor’s race for which we were able to obtain exit poll data in recent decades.
But it is not dramatically at odds with how Republican candidates have performed in Wisconsin in other major races in the past few years.
The gender gap has been growing in Wisconsin.
In her 1988 U.S. Senate race against Democrat Herb Kohl, Republican Susan Engeleiter did three points worse with women than men. In his 1992 Senate race against Democrat Russ Feingold, GOP Sen. Bob Kasten did two points worse with women than men.
But these gender gaps grew in the 1990s and 2000s -- ranging in the mid- to high-single digits.
For example, former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson did four points worse with women than men in 1994 and seven points worse in 1998.
Republican Mark Neumann did four points worse with women in his 1998 race against Feingold. And Republican Mark Green did five points worse with women than men in his race against Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006.
The gender gap got bigger still in the 2010 election.
Walker did nine points worse among women than men in winning the governor’s race, as did Republican Ron Johnson in winning his U.S. Senate race against Feingold.
In the 2012 U.S. Senate race against Tammy Baldwin, Republican Tommy Thompson did 10 points worse with women than women.
Looking back over that landscape, it’s clear that Walker’s 12-point gender gap in the 2012 recall race is the biggest of all these races, but it’s consistent with the trend of a growing gender gap.
And it’s not a great deal bigger than other big statewide races in 2010 and 2012.
When you broaden the focus to consider presidential voting in Wisconsin, the biggest difference is that the gender gap appeared earlier in time and hasn’t really grown that much.
Some examples: George Herbert Walker Bush did 10 points worse with women than men in his 1988 race; George W. Bush did 11 points worse with women in 2000 and six points worse in 2004; John McCain did six points worse with women in 2008 and Mitt Romney did nine points worse with women than men in 2012.
We have been describing these Republican candidates as doing "worse with women" but you could just as easily describe them as doing "better with men," since the gender gap is a double-edged sword for the two parties. For Republicans it can result from weakness among women, but it can also result from strength among men. For Democrats, it’s just the other way around.
In his two victories for governor, Walker lost women voters, but not overwhelmingly, getting 48 percent of women in 2010 and 47 percent in 2012. The gender gap in those races was more about Walker’s strength with male voters, winning men with 57 percent in 2010 and 59 percent in 2012.
2014 governor’s race
What does the gender gap look like in the 2014 race between Walker and Burke?
For the answer, we can turn to the regular polling done by the Marquette University Law School.
We also looked at the gender gaps in these other races in Marquette’s polling: the June 2012 recall race between Walker and Barrett; the 2012 Senate race between Baldwin and Thompson; and the 2012 presidential race between Romney and Barack Obama.
We calculated the average gender gap in all the polling for each race.
And once again, the Walker races featured the biggest gender gaps, though they were only marginally bigger than the other two races. The 2012 recall race had the biggest gender gap of the four contests.
We should note that if the question is not the gap between men and women, but Walker's performance with women specifically, his numbers are actually better than the most Republicans in recent years in Wisconsin.
That is, he has lost among women, but not by as much as many other candidates in his party in this state.
The most notable exception is Thompson, whose landslide victories for governor featured big winning margins among both men and women. Thompson’s victories in the 1990s, in fact, are the only case we could find in recent decades of a Republican winning women in Wisconsin in a statewide contest for governor, U.S. Senate or president.
One last note about the gender gap this year.
In Marquette’s polling of the Walker-Burke race, the gender gap has fluctuated a lot from poll to poll, raising some eyebrows among political observers. It’s not unusual for swings to occur among subgroups of voters, and it’s sometimes due to random variation from survey to survey. The gender gap shrank dramatically in Marquette’s first October poll, but returned in Marquette’s last pre-election poll taken Oct. 23 to 26.
If you average all the Marquette polls this year, you find that the gender gap is alive and well. Walker has been winning 52 percent of male registered voters and 42 percent of female registered voters over the course of nine 2014 polls. Burke has been winning 48 percent of female registered voters and 40 percent of male registered voters.
Walker said the gender gap in his support is "not unique to me" and "there’s not a huge gap from where Republicans have been in presidential, gubernatorial and US Senate elections" in recent years.
Walker is correct when he suggests the gender gap in his race is not dramatically different from that seen for other Republican candidates in other comparable races in Wisconsin in recent history.
At the same time, according to exit polls, Walker’s 2012 recall win featured a bigger gender gap than any other recent race for governor or U.S. Senate in Wisconsin.
We rate his claim Mostly True.