December 3 2012

Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Karlyn Bowman

Gayle Trotter

Whether the issue is NAFTA, taxes, or the gender gap, Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute is considered one of the most astute analysts of public opinion in Washington, D.C.

A columnist for Forbes magazine, the AEI senior fellow is a one-woman quote circuit. Reporters and policy wonks from both sides of the political aisle call Bowman for her respected analysis of public opinion. She is also a longtime friend of IWF. Bowman wrote a column on polling and public opinion for IWF’s old The Women’s Quarterly.

Of particular interest just now is Bowman’s take on the gender gap, that phenomenon whereby women voters skew Democratic. It was discovered in the 1980s and nearly vanished in the 2010 midterms. The Obama campaign knew, however, that to win a second term, President Obama needed that gender gap. The “War on Women” was born.

When asked about the Obama campaign’s “War on Women” rhetoric, Bowman observed that Democrats have used it successfully to reach two different groups of women: unmarried young women who are not particularly reliable voters but a growing slice of the female electorate, and women with post-graduate degrees.”  These groups lean heavily Democratic.

“We are expecting that in the 2020 census, unmarried women will be nearly half of all women,” Bowman stated, and “Democrats believe they can appeal to women with the ads on reproductive freedom and abortion.”

Bowman and Jennifer Marsico, a senior research associate at AEI (and occasional guest blogger for IWF), teamed up to study voting patterns among women. They pinpointed the ways in which the male and female voters tend to differ:

Men and women differ on the proper role of government, with women consistently telling pollsters they favor a stronger role for government than do men. Women express greater concern about the economy’s future than do men, and they lag behind them in seeing signs of economic recovery. Women are more risk averse than men. A question CBS News has asked occasionally about the willingness to fly into space also produces a gender chasm. Women differ significantly from men on the safety of nuclear power.

They are less supportive of using force, whether the issue is sending troops into battle or imposing the death penalty. They are less likely than men to support stand-your-ground laws.

As to whether women will vote for other women, Bowman posits that “female candidates are less of a novelty and women voters want their candidates to line up with their partisan and policy preferences.”  Looking at races with a female Senate or gubernatorial candidate between 1994 and 2010, their study showed that “Democratic woman candidates almost always attract women’s votes while Republican woman candidates rarely do so.”

Bowman has also explored why there aren’t more women in public office, a somewhat surprising fact, since “women win just as often as men at every level of politics.” A 2011 survey found that 62% of men and 46% of women (drawn from professionally similar men and women with backgrounds in law, business, education and politics) said they had considered running for office.

For the women surveyed, reasons against entering politics included a sense of bias against women, feeling less competent, confident and competitive, and women simply being more risk averse than men.  These women had more responsibilities at home, and did not want to lose privacy or family time.

 In an article headlined “Election Results from A to Z” that appeared on AEI’s online magazine The American, Bowman emphasized that the gap between married and voters is far greater than the gender gap. Fifty-six percent of married voters went for Governor Mitt Romney, while 42 percent supported President Obama. But President Obama ran away with the unmarried voters: he got 65 percent in 2008 and 62 percent in 2012. Unmarried women supported President Obama by 67 percent, while he won a lesser 56 percent of unmarried men.

Yet that’s not to say that the gender gap isn‘t important too:

Women made up 53% of all voters, and they pulled the lever for Obama 55 to 44%. Men voted 52 to 45% for Romney. White men were only 34% of the electorate, down from 46%in 1980. The gender gap in this election was 18 points.

Bowman’s primary interest may be in public opinion and what shapes it, but she also has deeply held policy and political beliefs of her own.

Unlike many baby boomers, Bowman tended towards conservatism early on. “I had a brief flirtation in the 1960’s with the left, with the anti-Vietnam crowd,” she said. While in high school, Bowman did not think that much about politics, but she recalled working on the Barry Goldwater campaign for the Young Republicans.  Her affair with liberalism was brief. As an undergraduate atthe University of Wisconsin, Bowman didn’t care for the radicalism on campus. She very quickly returned to her roots as a conservative. 

Bowman said that she is a conservative because she “favors a more limited role for government than do my Democratic friends.”

Once she graduated, Bowman started her career as a receptionist for former New York Senator James Buckley. She then worked for a public relations firm, writing some radio scripts for Ronald Reagan.

When she began working at AEI in 1979, she was a junior staff assistant.  She credits many “wonderful opportunities” she had that helped her achieve success in her field. Bowman is married to the author and movie critic James Bowman, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. James Bowman is perhaps best-known for his magisterial book, Honor: A History.           

“It is very important to get people when they are young because there are significant formative generational experiences that incline you toward one party or the other,” Bowman observed.  “That is what this game is about right now, trying to cement that generational allegiance.”

Bowman’s research and analysis shows there is much work to be done, and she sees an exciting opportunity for organizations like IWF to be more vocal around the country.

“Changing minds is not an easy thing to do,” Bowman admits, but she is excited about the prospects for the future.  Bowman will be a panelist at an IWF panel in January on what conservative-leaning women must do in response to the 2012 presidential race.

Read more Portrait of a Modern Feminist features >>

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