Do Republicans Really Have a Woman Problem?
Although more women voted for Hillary Clinton, white women favored Trump by two percentage points.
“The gender gap’s the only reason the [Democratic] Party wins. If only men voted, the Democrats would never hold another elected office.” Or so says Democratic Party strategist Amy Gardner, in that most rose-tinted of political TV shows, the West Wing.
The second part of Gardner’s statement is pretty accurate – Democrats would definitely struggle without the gender gap, which is the difference between the percentage of women and the percentage of men who support Democratic candidates. But the question is not just whether women can be relied upon to consistently vote for Democrats, but which women can be relied upon.
When Trump was elected in 2016, he gained the support of 47 percent of white women. (It has been heavily reported that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, but this number is based on a flawed, exit poll system which over-represents those who choose to stay and speak to pollsters.) Although more women, and more people in total, voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton, white women favored Trump by two percentage points.
Many commentators found this fact surprising given the misogynistic way Trump behaved on the campaign trail, and his boastful admission that he had committed sexual assaults. Add to this the prevailing wisdom that women vote for Democrats and a lot of people were bewildered at this apparent change in electoral trends.
It is true that in most presidential elections, more women have voted for the Democrat than the Republican. But this statistic, by lumping women together in one group, has muddied the waters slightly. The really informative stat is this: in presidential elections since 1952, a majority of white women have supported the Democrat in only two elections. 2016 was not one of them.
As the University of Southern California political scientist, Jane Junn, wrote for the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, “It is the introduction and steady growth of minority voters in the U.S. electorate over the last six decades that drives higher overall proportions of female support for Democratic Party candidates.”
In 2016, Rodham Clinton won the votes of 82 percent of non-white women compared to Trump’s 16 percent support from the same demographic. But when white women are added in, Rodham Clinton’s support drops to 54 percent of women overall. So Amy Gardner’s commentary could have used some intersectional analysis.
Outside of presidential elections, there is a lot less data and voting patterns vary wildly from state to state. One example, from the 2018 election for a Texas Senator, demonstrates that the issue is not limited to presidential elections. When Beto O’Rourke challenged Ted Cruz for the Senate seat last year, he attracted a huge amount of media attention and was seemingly on track to winning after building a strong grassroots campaign. The New York Times reported that evangelical white women, unhappy with the Republicans’ treatment of children at the Mexico border, were going to break the Republican-voting habit of a lifetime and support O’Rourke. But this switch in allegiances never eventuated and Cruz retained his seat with the votes of almost two-thirds of white women.
On the Republican side of the ledger, the conventional wisdom is that the Party has a problem with women: they don’t support women as candidates, they don’t promote women-friendly policies and they use misogynistic rhetoric. These criticisms may all be true, but for the most part it hasn’t hurt the Republicans electorally and that’s because white women continue to vote for them.
So why are white women like this?
Guardian US columnist, Moira Donegan, has looked into that question and concluded that while racism is the obvious and easy answer, there is more to it. For some white women, sticking with the power is the best protection from acknowledging the violence of the patriarchy. As white women exist at the intersection of (sexist) oppression and (racist) privilege: “In a political system where racism and sexism are both so deeply ingrained, white women must choose to be loyal to either the more powerful aspect of their identity, their race, or to the less powerful, their sex. Some Republican white women might lean into racism not only for racism’s sake, but also as a means of avoiding or denying the realities of how sexist oppression makes them vulnerable.”
With such strong evidence that it is not women the Democrats rely upon, but non-white women, presidential contenders can’t take the support of women of color for granted. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who are both black, have talked about this consistently throughout their campaigns. But with Harris dropping out and Booker currently failing to qualify for the next Democratic debate, there are no other voices making this morally significant and politically urgent point.
Solid turnout from women of color has got the Democrats this far, but to win the 2020 presidential election, the Democratic candidate needs to consolidate the party’s base as well as making appeals to new and disaffected voters. To win back the White House, Democrats must be aware of the bargains white women are willing to strike to protect their privilege.