Nate Silver put an interesting post up earlier this week about the gender gap. If current polling is any indication, this year is going to look a lot like 2000 in more ways than just the closeness of the vote. It’s also going to feature the largest gender gap since that year, and the largest “split” in the vote – where men and women favored different candidates by significant margins.

Silver assumes the conventional wisdom that this split is driven by different views on social issues like abortion and gun control:

The large gender gap comes despite the fact that men and women’s economic roles are becoming more equal — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represented 47 percent of the labor force as of September — and that women suffered at least as much as men in the recent economic downturn.

The unemployment rate among women was 7.5 percent as of September — up from 7.0 percent when Mr. Obama took office in January 2009.

The unemployment rate among men is higher — 8.0 percent as of September — but it has declined rather than increased since Mr. Obama took office. It had been 8.6 percent in January 2009, and peaked at as high as 11.2 percent later that year.

This suggests the gender gap instead has more to do with partisan ideology than with pocketbook voting; apart from their views on abortion, women also take more liberal stances than men on social issues ranging from same-sex marriage to gun control.

But Seth Masket of the University of Denver guest-blogger Christina Wolbrecht of the University of Notre Dame questions that assumption. He She points out that the gender gap opened up as early as the 1960s, well before the “social issues” as we understand them today became political touchstones.

Repeated research has failed to uncover evidence that women’s issues, including abortion, cause the gender gap. Long story short, there are few consistent gender differences in attitudes on such issues, and limited evidence that women prioritize women’s issues such as abortion in their voting calculus to a greater extent than men do. If and when such issues do influence vote choice, we have reason to believe they may work in either a liberal or conservative direction. Finally, as I show in my book, the parties only diverged on women’s issues in the late 1970s, and as we’ve seen, the pro-Democratic gender gap emerged earlier than that.

So if it’s not abortion and women’s issues, what causes the gender gap? One word: Men. Most explanations for the gender gap focus on women, implicitly assuming that men are the norm and any divergence from male behavior is an oddity to be explained. But a closer look at the data suggest that most of the relevant movement, at least initially, was on the male side, a point made originally by Wirls, and later supported by (among others) Norrander and Kaufmann and Petrocik. . . .

Why did (some) men abandon the Democratic party? Why did (some) women stay? The answers to those questions are complex, and require careful attention to race, region, and religion, among other things. At the risk of over-simplification, however, a big part of the answer appears to be divergence in preferences for social welfare policies, such as aid to the poor and elderly, health care, and so on. Unlike attitudes on women’s issues, polls reveal consistent gender differences in preferences for social welfare, with women more likely to express liberal positions. Men’s and women’s different relationships to the social welfare state, employment patterns, and economic vulnerability are among the reasons given for these preference differences, as well as for the gender gap itself.

It might be worth taking a lot not at the gender gap but at the partisan gap by gender. If we do that, what do we see?

It looks to me like the gender gap as we observe it today developed in two stages.

By 1980, men were already substantially detached from the Democratic Party. From 1980 through 2004, no Democrat won more than 43% of the male vote. The percentages that went for Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry were virtually identical.

The female vote, on the other hand, became anchored to the Democratic Party in 1996. Women gave 54% of their votes that year to Bill Clinton, and repeated that percentage in 2000. 2004 was a bit lower and 2008 a bit higher, but it’s striking that Obama’s margin wasn’t much higher than Gore’s.

Bill Clinton’s improved margin from 1992 to 1996 was overwhelmingly due to a change in his percentage of the women’s vote. He went from 41% of the men’s vote to 43%, but went from 45% to 54% of the women’s vote. Obama’s improved margin over Gore’s, on the other hand, was largely due to the men’s vote. He earned 56% of the women’s vote, versus 54% for Gore, but earned 49% of the men’s vote, versus 42% for Gore.

To enter the realm of wanton speculation, this looks to me like it’s consistent with a story about each party’s economic stewardship, and how they look from the differing perspectives of men and women. Deindustrialization on the one hand and the rise of the service economy (and of the health-care sector in particular) have had very different impacts on male and female workers. The Democrats lost a majority of men’s votes a long time ago. But men have not been “won” by the Republicans, and have been more willing than women to bolt to third-party alternatives when they present themselves. Barack Obama won men’s votes briefly in 2008 against the backdrop of the financial crisis, but in spite of all his talk about (and efforts to achieve) a revival in manufacturing, the Democratic Party remains associated with a set of economic priorities that speak more to women than to men.

Those priorities, and the conviction that they were successful not merely in taking care of the vulnerable but in building a strong economy, became clear to women in 1996, and have only wavered slightly since then (in 2004, when Bush won an abnormally large percentage of the women’s vote, possibly because, as Nate Silver suggests, women have a greater tendency to vote for the incumbent, and possibly for the “security mom” reasons that were touted by the Bushies at the time). In spite of the fact that Obama has presided over substantial public-sector job cuts (at the state and local level) which impact women more than men, the Democratic Party is still associated with economic ideas that speak more to women than Republican ideas do.

Cue Hannah Rosin, I suppose.

Anyway, if both sexes return to voting form, November 6th could be a very long night.