Why Married Men Might Be an Overlooked but Crucial Voting Bloc

The gender gap is well known in politics. The marriage gap is more obscure — but could inform how campaigns think about key groups of voters in the next elections.

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The gender gap is one of the best-known dynamics in American politics. Put simply: Women lean liberal, men lean conservative. (As a character in “The West Wing” put it: “If women were the only voters, the Democrats would win in a landslide every time. If men were the only voters, the G.O.P. would be the left-wing party.”)

Similar, but more obscure, is the “marriage gap,” which describes the fact that single people trend liberal while married people skew conservative.

If both men and married people lean to the right, one would expect married men to be an extremely reliable Republican constituency. That is why it has been so surprising that recent analyses of the 2020 election show that in the past five years, married men, though still more Republican than not, significantly shifted in the direction of Democrats.

What’s going on here? And what could it mean for the political future?

“Democrats are going to have to figure out if this shift is permanent,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.

Recent data from the Pew Research Center revealed that married men went from voting 62 percent for Donald J. Trump and 32 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016, to 54 percent for Trump and 44 percent for Joseph R. Biden Jr. last year. That sizable shift — a 30-percentage-point margin sliced to 10 points, and a 12-point jump for the Democratic candidate — was underscored by the much lower movement Pew found among unmarried men, married women and unmarried women.

Both the Cooperative Election Study and the Democratic data firm Catalist found smaller but still notable four-point shifts toward Mr. Biden among married men in the two-party vote share, or the total tally excluding votes for third-party candidates.

“That’s definitely statistically significant,” said Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at Tufts University who co-directs the Cooperative Election Study. “Married men are a pretty big group,” he added, “so that’s pretty meaningful in terms of the ultimate margin.”

A partial explanation for this shift, and the simplest, is that the gender gap itself got smaller in 2020. Mr. Biden won 48 percent of men while Mrs. Clinton won 41 percent, according to Pew, even as female voters in aggregate hardly budged. Mr. Biden also improved on Mrs. Clinton’s margins among white voters; his movement among white married men was responsible for the shift among all married men, according to Catalist.

Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster, said that Mr. Biden’s outperforming Mrs. Clinton among this group “doesn’t surprise me at all.”

In other words, this story may have less to do with Mr. Biden, and may even be the rare Trump-related story that has less to do with Mr. Trump. Rather, it is a story about Mrs. Clinton and sexism — a “gendered” view of the candidate, as Ms. Greenberg put it — in which the potential of the first woman president raised the importance of issues like feminism, abortion and the culture wars, all of which help explain the gender gap in the first place.

“She was not well-liked by large numbers of the public, but especially by independent and Republican men,” said Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science at Penn State University. “There were opportunities for Biden to win back some of that demographic.”

The pool of married men was also very different last year than in 2016. The Cooperative Election Study asked respondents whom they had supported in both 2016 and 2020, and found that married men were not particularly likely to have switched between the parties, Dr. Schaffner said. However, because of death, divorce and marriage, the composition of this group changed. It got younger and more millennial. And that meant it got more Democratic.

“This is not your father’s married man,” Dr. Schaffner said.

Indeed, the elections analyst Nathaniel Rakich floated a theory on a recent podcast that the sharp increase in mail-in voting last year — when, thanks to Covid-19, numerous states made that option easier and unprecedented numbers of voters chose it — led to more married couples discussing their votes, perhaps even seeing each other’s ballots, and that this, in turn, led to more straight-ticket household voting. And if married men moved toward the Democrat while married women were consistent, it would seem likelier that husbands acceded to their wives rather than the opposite. “Wife Guys” for Biden?

Ms. Greenberg said it was impossible to know if this had happened, but noted that “vote-by-mail was heavily Democratic.”

Finally, a big story of the election was a divide among voters based on education, as those with college degrees moved toward Mr. Biden and those without headed toward Mr. Trump. That could help explain the shift among married men, who are likely to be middle class, Dr. Schaffner said.

For Dr. Plutzer, the shift of the married men carries an indisputable lesson: Swing voters may be an endangered species, but they are not mythical. “This was something we debated a great deal in the run-up to the last election: whether campaigns only needed to focus on mobilization,” he said. “This shows that there are groups that actually do swing, that are responsive to what a president does in office, and responsive enough that they look for alternatives.”

Mr. Anderson, the Republican pollster, cautioned that Democratic momentum with this group might be fleeting: “Since Biden’s taken office,” he said, “in our own polling, Republican liability among college-educated suburbanites has decreased since last fall.”

To Ms. Greenberg, the thought of deliberately targeting married men — and white married men especially — is unfamiliar to say the least. Democratic campaigns tend to target different kinds of female voters and voters of color, she said.

But that could change as soon as the midterms. “There certainly are heavily suburban districts that are going to be heavily contested next year,” Ms. Greenberg added, “where they definitely are going to take a look at some of these suburban well-educated married men.”

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