Everyone has heard about the gender gap -- the tendency of women to vote Democratic, while men tend to vote Republican. It's having a modest impact on this presidential election: In the latest Los Angeles Times poll, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton attracted 50 percent of women's votes, compared with 45 percent of men's.
But there is a more fundamental divide in the electorate in this year of "family values," deadbeat dads and "Murphy Brown." Call it the marriage gap.
Among married couples -- who constitute over three-fifths of all adults in the country -- Mr. Clinton leads President Bush by a gossamer 43 percent-39 percent margin, according to the Times poll, which was conducted from Oct. 2-Oct. 5. But among single voters -- defined as all unmarried adults except widowed men and women -- Mr. Clinton holds a decisive 56 percent-25 percent advantage. Ross Perot attracts about one in 10 of both groups.
In other words, Mr. Clinton runs 13 percentage points better with singles than with married couples. That's a gulf more than twice as large as the gender gap in the Times poll.
It's tempting to view this division as a result of the GOP's polarizing stress on "family values" at the Republican Convention in August. To many listeners, the sharply worded speeches from the podium appeared to express disapproval of anything other than two-parent families, where the mother stays at home to tend the children.
That now-muted message "may have intensified" the voting gap between singles and married couples, acknowledges Fred Steeper, the Bush campaign's pollster. But it clearly didn't cause it, because the marriage gap dates back well before this election, and it extends not only to preferences between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush but also to broad questions of political philosophy.
Over the past six presidential elections, married couples have voted for Republican presidential candidates at a rate about 6 to 7 percentage points greater than singles, according to a compilation of National Opinion Research Center data by polling analyst Karlyn Keene.
In the Times poll, married voters were more likely than singles to identify as Republicans and less likely to call themselves Democrats.
Just 21 percent of married voters called themselves liberals, with 38 percent terming themselves moderate and 40 percent conservatives. Among singles, the share calling themselves moderate was about the same (36 percent), but otherwise the numbers reversed, with 37 percent calling themselves liberal, and 23 percent conservative.
On many of the issues raised in this campaign, married voters take more conservative positions than singles, particularly on social issues.
In the last Times poll, married voters split narrowly in favor of the Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman's legal right to an abortion; singles supported the decision by a ratio of almost 3-to-1. By a margin of 49 percent to 42 percent, married voters opposed allowing homosexuals to serve in the military; singles supported gay service by 60 percent to 34 percent.
Single voters were more likely than married ones to support the environment over the economy when the two conflict and to say that government should work intimately with business to help create jobs, the poll showed.