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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