Men Responded Far More Positively Than Women to The Third Presidential Debate

Men seemed to like Romney's tough talk on foreign policy, communication experts say.

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Those monitoring the levels on CNN's real-time voter-sentiment chart Monday night may have noticed that for the first time during the 2012 debates, women and men had extraordinarily different responses 

Reactions from male viewers spiked positive a number of times throughout the debate, while women at many moments appeared to flat-line. And much of that male positive energy went toward Mitt Romney.

CNN/ORC International poll after the debate found while most people believed President Obama had won the debate, a plurality of men saw the GOP nominee as the real victor.

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Erik Bucy, a professor at Texas Tech University's College of Media and Communication, says "tough talk" on foreign policy is what made the debate a largely "male-oriented" exchange, and one in which males favored Romney. Bucy monitored male and female responses to the candidates at the Center for Communication Research, an experimental lab in Lubbock, Texas.

Romney and Obama battle during the presidential debate at Lynn University.

"Tough military talk by Romney really [brought] out high favorability ratings among male viewers," he says. Almost an hour into the debate, he notes, Romney got "a huge rise" from male viewers after the Republican contender charged that America was "four years closer to a nuclear Iran" and labeled Obama's travel as an "apology tour." And just 15 minutes before the debate ended, Bucy noticed Republican and male viewers immediately responding to Romney's reaction to Obama's comments on China.

Patrick Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas who also monitored the candidates' communication in the debates, says he believes the debate skewed male because of the "nature of the material."

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"The material... focused on international affairs and force projection," he says. "Males will be more likely to respond positively to the posture of strength and responding to potential enemies."

As noted in a 2011 paper on foreign policy and the gender gap by Courtney Burns at the University of Missouri, women tend to respond more negatively to escalation of conflict than men do. Some believe this is because women are more peaceful than men, an idea vigorously debated in feminist and social constructivist circles.

Whatever the reason, researchers like Burns have documented a clear gender gap when it comes to the response to foreign policy decisions that lead to conflict or crisis. And that gap appeared to be on display last night.

While men seemed to enjoy Romney's tough talk on Iran, China and other hot spots for foreign policy, the women who responded positively did so mostly for Obama, according to the CNN/ORC poll. In the poll, women perceived Obama as the stronger leader, despite his similar tough talk to Romney's, and saw the president as the victor of the debate by 22 points.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.