But there has been a consistent thread of disagreement for decades over what role the government should play. It’s not a big gap, but it is statistically significant, about 4 percentage points or 5 points in many studies, Kellstedt said. As a group, women tend to like bigger government with more health and welfare programs; men lean toward smaller government that spends less, except on the military.

Sort of the social safety net versus rugged individualism. Or Obama versus Romney.

There are lots of possible reasons the genders see this differently.

Besides women’s traditional role as family nurturers, they also live longer than men and so are more likely to rely on Social Security and Medicare. Women are more likely to be poor. They’re more likely to be single parents struggling to pay for child care, education and medical bills. Men may feel many social programs are expensive and won’t benefit them.

“Women tend to believe that government has a role to play, that it should be a partner in their life,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Men tend to think it’s been a good day when the government hasn’t done anything bad to you.”

When the nation as a whole drifts to the left or right on the big government-small government debate, the gap between men and women fluctuates. Men and women shift their views in the same direction, Kellstedt said, but men as a group tend to change their minds faster and move their views farther.