Election 2012: Women’s Votes Critical to Democrats Retaining Control of the U.S. Senate

Women’s votes made the difference in the outcomes of several high-profile races that helped Democrats retain control of the U.S. Senate, according to an analysis of Edison Research exit polls conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State  University of New Jersey. In seven high-visibility races where exit polls were conducted, men voted for the losing Republican candidate, while a majority of women cast their ballots for the winning Democratic candidate.

Democrats Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Tim Kaine in Virginia, Jon Tester in Montana, and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts were all elected because of the votes of women (see table below). In addition, in Connecticut, men split their votes evenly between Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon, while women showed a clear and decisive preference for Murphy.

In the two U.S. Senate races where Republican candidates made controversial comments about rape, women’s votes played important roles in the victories of the Democratic candidates. In Indiana, a majority of women voted for Democrat Joe Donnelly, while a majority of men cast ballots for Republican Richard Mourdock. In contrast, in Missouri, a majority of both men and women voted for Democrat Claire McCaskill, although women were 7 percentage points more likely than men to vote for McCaskill.

Susan J. Carroll, senior scholar at CAWP, observed, “The composition of the United States Senate in the 113th Congress would look very different if it were not for the votes of women in these races. It’s clear that in a significant number of U.S. Senate races, women and men preferred different candidates and women’s preferences prevailed.”

Gender gaps in voting, ranging from 5 to 13 points, were evident in all but one of the 23 U.S. Senate races in 2012 where exit polls were conducted. Women were more likely than men to support the Democratic candidates -- and less likely to support the Republican -- in each race where there was a gender gap, defined as a measurable difference in the proportions of women and men who voted for the winning candidate. The sole exception was the contest in Maine, which was won by independent candidate Angus King.

Some of the largest gender gaps were in races where Democratic women won, including incumbent Senators Amy Klobuchar (13 pts.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (12 pts.) and newcomers Elizabeth Warren (12 pts.), and Tammy Baldwin (10 pts.). According to CAWP director Debbie Walsh, “The gender gap is not about the gender of the candidate, but about the issues. Still, the presence of a Democratic woman in the race can slightly increase the size of the gender gap.”

A 10 percentage-point gender gap was also apparent in U.S. House races. Nationally, 55% of women, compared with 45% of men, voted for the Democratic congressional candidates in their districts; 44% of women, compared with 53% of men, voted for Republican U.S. House candidates.  A majority of women showed a preference for Democratic candidates, while a majority of men preferred Republican candidates, resulting in a narrow advantage for Democratic candidates overall.


Daniel De Simone: ddesimone@eagleton.rutgers.edu; 760.703.0948