A history of the gender gap

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. President Barack Obama AP Photo/Getty Images

(CBS News) Women's issues have prompted discussion in the political sphere on subjects including reproductive health, contraception and career choices. Recent polls show a sizable gender gap in voters' support, offering insight into questions and speculation about how these issues may affect the upcoming presidential election.

In the latest CBS News/New York Times Poll, 49 percent of women voters now support President Barack Obama, with Mitt Romney receiving 43 percent, giving Obama a 6 point lead. Among men, it's the reverse: 49 percent support Romney, and 43 percent back Mr. Obama, for a 6 point lead in the other direction. Other polls have shown similar - sometimes even larger - differences, with Mr. Obama consistently receiving a greater share of the women's vote than Romney.

This gender division is not unusual. It follows a voting pattern established over the past 20 years. In presidential elections, more women have voted for the Democratic candidate, while more men have voted for the Republican. (Before 1992, the vote among women was split or favored Republican presidential candidates.) It's worth pointing out that in 2004 John Kerry ran just 3 percentage points ahead of George W. Bush among women, due at least in part to concerns among women about terrorism.

While it's problematic to compare voting patterns for midterm and presidential elections because turnout for each type of election is different, the 2010 midterm election was unusual in that women voted for Republican candidates over Democrats for the House of Representatives that year by 1 percentage point, which was the first election since 1982 more women voted for House Republicans - erasing the double digit lead the Democrats received among women in the 2008 presidential election. In that respect, the return of the gender gap in the 2012 pre-election polls is noteworthy.

Women have traditionally been more likely to identify themselves as Democrats, and that's the case in the latest CBS News/New York Times Poll: 37 percent do so, compared to 31 percent of men. Women are also more likely than men to want the government to do more to improve the economy (72 percent, versus 62 percent of men) and the housing market (57 percent, versus 46 percent of men).

Of course, women don't vote as a single block. The CBS/New York Times Poll shows differences between single, married and working women. President Obama earns a greater share of single and working women's support, while married women are now backing Romney. But strong support for Democratic presidential candidates among women overall is nothing new.

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  • Sarah Dutton On Twitter»

    Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys.

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