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The Myth of the Women’s Vote

WASHINGTON, DC – Among the clichés that deserve to be thrown out after the recent presidential election in the United States is the idea of a “women’s vote.”

It may seem surprising that only 54% of the female electorate voted for Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated for president by a major party. But while gender is a strong marker for how Americans think about certain issues, it is not the best predictor of how they will vote. It turns out that female candidates do not face a single gender gap, but rather multiple gender gaps.

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To be sure, a superficial look at past election results reveals an enormous and persistent difference between men and women voters overall. According to Pew Research, the last presidential election in which men and women voted the same was the 1976 contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In this year’s election, women favored Clinton by 12 percentage points, and men favored Trump by the same margin. Men favored George W. Bush by 11 points in 2000, and women favored Obama by 13 points and 11 points in 2008 and 2012, respectively; but until now we have never seen double-digit gaps in both directions simultaneously.

But this still does not mean that the gender gap tells us much as a first-order factor, especially if we consider other gaps among demographic groups. If we sort by race or ethnicity, we find that white Americans favored Trump by 21 points, while Hispanics and African-Americans favored Clinton by 36 points and 80 points, respectively.

Meanwhile, voters with different education levels were further apart than in any election since 1980. College-educated voters backed Clinton by a nine-point margin, while people without a college degree backed Trump by an eight-point margin.

A New York Times analysis of exit polls found that voters with annual incomes below $50,000 backed Clinton by about a ten-point margin, while voters with incomes above that level split evenly between the two candidates. This indicates that, at least in this year’s election, ethnicity and education were much more predictive than income.

As it happens, they were also more predictive than gender. Ninety-three percent of African-American women and 80% of African-American men voted for Clinton. But 53% of white women and 63% of white men voted for Trump, while only 43% of white women and 31% of white men voted for Clinton.

Similarly, Clinton won the support of white, college-educated women by six points; but she lost white non-college-educated women by 28 points and white non-college-educated men by 49 points. And if we look just at Republican voters, the gender gap vanishes almost entirely: 91% of Republican women and 92% of Republican men voted for Trump.

This all points not to a single gender dynamic, but to one refracted through multiple social and economic lenses. For example, as CBS News noted, Clinton’s failure to match President Barack Obama’s performance with African-American voters was “entirely due to black men” not voting for her – though why this was the case remains unexplained. And, despite her candidacy’s historic significance, Clinton’s performance with white women voters was no better than Obama’s performance in 2012.

We know that Republican women voted according to their party affiliation and not their gender. But Trump also seems to have reached white women not affiliated with a political party, perhaps owing to his campaign’s strategy of hyping women’s anxiety.

This strategy’s success indicates one way that gender can play a role in voter decision-making. Voter data going back 50 years suggests that women, more than men, are moved by the anxiety of changing circumstances and external threats.

For example, in the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign aired the now-famous “Daisy” advertisement that suggested that his opponent, Barry Goldwater, would pull the US into a nuclear war; a week later, polls found that 45% of men, but 53% of women, shared that concern. Similarly, George W. Bush performed 30% better with women voters in his 2004 re-election campaign than he did in his 2000 campaign, which many political analysts attribute to anxieties among white middle-class “security moms” in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Still more recently, in the 2014 US midterm elections, Republicans emphasized the US’s vulnerabilities, and aired advertisements hinting that the Islamic State was directing Ebola-infected agents to kill Americans. Experts ridiculed these claims, but polling suggests that the advertisements were nevertheless effective, and a number of Democratic incumbents, and women in particular, lost elections that year. The Democrats’ focus on reproductive rights had done little to sway women who were already worrying about the Islamic State and Ebola. As I warned at the time, the 2014 election was a trial run for a 2016 strategy to defeat a woman candidate.

Many political observers assumed that this strategy could not possibly work for a Republican candidate who had suggested that a debate moderator was menstruating, joked about dating his daughter, was caught on tape boasting about groping women, and was publicly accused by several women of sexual harassment and assault.

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But, just as in the 2014 election, Republican-leaning voters in 2016 were far more concerned about terrorism, crime, illegal immigration, and economic security than they were about issues such as sexism, racism, and inequality.

Where does this leave American women? A female US presidential candidate has now won a majority of women’s votes, and more total votes than her male opponent, and yet her strategy failed to deliver enough votes to secure a victory. In America’s polarized political culture, appeals to one group simply alienate other groups. As long as female candidates are forced to meet multiple, contradictory gender expectations, the US will never close the most prominent gap of all: that between America and the many countries that have already chosen a woman to lead them.