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Divorce and Women Voters

If there's one long-term electoral trend worrying Republicans, it's the widening gender gap in voting behavior. In the early postwar period, a majority of women favored Republican candidates, while men were more inclined toward Democrats. In recent decades, however, voting patterns have reversed sharply, with far more women supporting Democrats and men voting Republican.

Recent elections highlight the shift. The support of women was a big factor in Bill Clinton's victories, and if women's votes alone had been counted in 2000, Al Gore would have won by a landslide. While polls suggest that George W. Bush has at least temporarily closed the gender gap after September 11, it still exists at the Congressional level.

The crucial question for political strategists of both parties, of course, is just why this has occurred. Conventional explanations center on such developments as the sharp increase in the ranks of working women, the rise of feminism, and women's concern over social issues such as abortion rights.

In a new study, however, economists Lena C. Edlund and Rohini Pande of Columbia University conclude that the major cause is the differing impact of the decline in marriage on the economic well-being of men and women. Since the early 1960s, as the proportion of marriages ending in divorce has risen to nearly 50% and as more people have chosen to defer marriage or remain single, the unmarried share of the adult population has surged to 44%. In the study, which will appear in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Edlund and Pande relate this trend to the reversal in men's and women's party allegiances and the subsequent widening of the political gender gap.

Arguing that the decline in marriage has tended to make men richer and women poorer, they find that states with rising divorce rates have seen a decline in support for Democrats among men and a marked rise in such support among women. The data also show that women become more likely to vote Democratic after a divorce and less likely after marriage.

Such gender shifts seem largely limited to middle-income voters. Why? The authors theorize that some poor men might become a bit richer via divorce, but not enough to turn them into Republicans. And affluent single women may be less well off than their married peers, but not enough to spur them to vote Democratic.

The authors also find no evidence that women's views on social and religious issues affect the political gender gap. And working seems to make only middle-income women--not poor or rich women--more likely to support Democrats.

In sum, the decline in marriage, and especially its effect on the relative economic fortunes of a majority of women, seems to be pushing them to the left. And that suggests that Republicans may face an uphill battle with female voters unless marriage stages a comeback. While companies often fret about the baleful effects of rising employee turnover, many professional sports teams seem increasingly willing to shake up their player rosters to achieve winning records. At least as far as professional basketball is concerned, however, that strategy has often backfired, reports a study in the current Academy of Management Journal.

In the study, Shawn L. Berman of Santa Clara University, Jonathan Down of Oregon State University, and Charles Hill of the University of Washington compared the records of 23 National Basketball Assn. teams from 1980 to 1994 to the amount of "shared experience" racked up by team members. To measure a team's shared experience, the authors looked at both its members' overall tenure on the team and their actual on-court minutes. Adjusting for other factors that affect performance (such as player quality and age), they found that teams with low turnover tended to improve their win-loss records significantly.

One sign that this wasn't due simply to the tendency of winning teams to keep their lineups intact is that member stability also gave a big boost to losing teams, which presumably had little incentive to stay with their old rosters. Teams with more losses than wins in one year won an average of 5.7 more games in the following year if their level of shared experience also rose--but only 1.2 more games on average if they had shuffled their rosters. In other words, teams that stayed together tended to play a lot better together. Analysts puzzling over the surprising strength of consumer spending through the recession should take a close look at consumer inflation, says economist James Paulsen of Wells Capital Management. As measured by the implicit price deflator for personal consumption expenditures, consumer prices rose a mere 1.1% in 2001. And retail prices, which don't include services, actually declined by some 2.5%.

All of this adds up to a real shot in the arm for wage earners, notes Paulsen. Adjusted for inflation, average hourly earnings rose 2.9% last year, their largest annual increase since the early 1970s. Bolstered by weak and falling prices, the purchasing power of paychecks has risen a hefty 12% in the past five years (chart).

The other side of the coin, of course, is that low inflation has hit corporate profitability hard, helping to inspire that cutback in business spending that touched off the recession. The question now is whether business can restore margins in a low-inflation recovery. It's one reason why Paulsen expects the upturn to be unusually sluggish, despite strong consumer spending.

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