clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hostility toward women is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support

"Hillary for prison" shirt
A Donald Trump supporter’s shirt at a rally in New Hampshire.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Since the start of the Republican primaries, hundreds of thousands of words and hours of television airtime have been devoted to one question: What do Donald Trump’s supporters want? The 42 percent of Americans supporting Trump have been studied and caricatured and psychoanalyzed.

Explanations abound: They’re stricken with economic anxiety. They’re anxious about their social status. They feel left behind by the federal government. They’re authoritarians who want a forceful leader. They’re racists who oppose the changing demographics and norms of the US.

But there’s another important factor that these analyses have largely left out: sexism. Three political scientists who studied the connection between sexism, emotions, and support for Trump found that the more hostile voters were toward women, the more likely they were to support Trump.

Researchers Carly Wayne, Nicholas Valentino and Marzia Oceno, who wrote about their work for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, conducted their research before the revelation of the secret recording that captured Trump bragging about kissing and groping women without their permission, and before more than a dozen women came forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault in the aftermath of its release.

While it might not seem surprising now that Trump has galvanized sexists, their findings suggest that sexism played a much bigger role in his rise than most people realized or wanted to imagine.

How “hostile sexism” predicts support for Trump

Sexism has largely been overlooked as a major factor in voters’ decisions to support Donald Trump. That would be understandable if it were simply one factor among many — one prejudice among the many that Hillary Clinton called the “basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”

But Wayne, Valentino, and Oceno’s research, conducted in June, found hostility toward women was a major factor, predicting support for Trump more strongly than authoritarian attitudes and about as well as racial prejudice. The political scientists used a four-question survey to determine sexist attitudes, asking if people agreed with the following statements:

  1. Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.
  2. Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor women over men, under the guise of asking for equality.
  3. Feminists are not actually seeking for women to have more power than men.
  4. Feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men.

The survey also asked how strongly respondents supported Clinton or Trump. The higher they were on the sexism scale, the more likely they were to support Trump and the less likely they were to support Clinton. Hostile sexism was nearly as good at predicting support for Trump as party identification was.

Sexism — and particularly anti-feminism — isn’t politically neutral. Many conservative women have come forward to say they’re horrified by Donald Trump, but sexism has been correlated with support for other Republican candidates as well. In studies of voters in 2008 and 2012, traditional beliefs about gender and hostility toward feminism were also linked to much lower support for Hillary Clinton.

“It’s the kind of sorting that people do to go into one party or the other,” said Wayne, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Michigan. Republicans “tend to have attitudes that are more traditionalist, more old-fashioned, less likely to want the kinds of changes that feminism, for example, is pushing.”

Wayne said she couldn’t compare how sexist attitudes nationally had correlated with support for Republicans in previous elections, so she couldn’t say if Trump made the situation better or worse. But Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, used the same survey as part of a poll in New Hampshire, and found that sexism was a much bigger factor in the 2016 election than it was in 2012:

Clinton’s candidacy is another piece of important context — it’s possible that strong support for Trump among sexists is in part a reaction to the first woman who could plausibly be elected president — but Schaffner’s findings back up the idea that Trump’s core supporters are unusually hostile toward women and feminism.

Trump isn’t just tapping into “traditional values”

Trump’s support among sexists doesn’t seem to be a function of the traditional, old-fashioned “family values” usually associated with the Republican Party.

In a survey in August, Wayne and her co-authors measured the impact of a different kind of “old-fashioned” view about women’s roles: the belief that women are different from men because they’re physically weaker and more morally pure. They asked survey respondents if they agreed with the following statements:

  1. In a disaster, women should be rescued before men.
  2. Women have a quality of purity that few men possess.
  3. Men should be willing to sacrifice their own well-being in order to provide for the women in their lives.
  4. Every man ought to have a woman whom he adores.

The questions measure “benevolent sexism” — a traditional, chivalrous view of men and women’s proper roles. Benevolent sexism can still undermine women’s equality because it paints women as weaker and more in need of male protection. Unlike its more hostile counterpart, though, benevolent sexism didn’t correlate much at all with support for Trump, at least before the leaked Access Hollywood tape. (Unlike the study on hostile sexism, the researchers didn’t use a representative national sample but rather an online survey. But the results were weighted for partisan identity, and Wayne says it was a high-quality sample.)

“The hostile sexism is highly correlated, but the benevolent sexism really is not,” Wayne said. “I found this result particularly interesting in the aftermath of some of the fallout from Trump’s tape. … There were a lot of Republicans saying they were against Trump’s statements because of their daughters and wives.”

Trump, in other words, isn’t just drawing from a base of people who have traditional views about women’s roles. He’s getting support from people who are hostile toward women’s economic and legal equality and who think feminism is making America worse.

Trump’s sexism was hidden in plain sight

It shouldn’t be surprising that Trump is the candidate of choice for people who believe that allegations of sexism are mostly made up and that feminism is really a ploy to get men on the losing side of a zero-sum status competition between the sexes. Trump’s misogyny has been a core part of his public persona for a long time.

Long before many of the sexual assault allegations emerged, Trump made clear, in public and private, that women matter to him not as people but as sex objects. Even with women whom he supposedly likes and admires, he’s made clear that he values their looks above all else. He turned his attitudes into discriminatory policies in his offices, at his resorts, and on his TV show, harassing women he found attractive and urging his employees to fire those he did not.

The fact that Trump was virulently sexist used to be widely recognized. "His brand of self-aggrandizing, bewigged machismo was kind of de rigeur in the 80's and charmingly old-timey in the 90's, but now it's just passé and exhausting and increasingly offensive," Richard Lawson wrote in a post headlined "Donald Trump: A Sexist Dinosaur" for Gawker in 2008. "And he never stops!"

In the vast American soul-searching over why people might want to vote for Trump, sexism has gotten short shrift. That might be because Trump’s blatantly sexist remarks were generally not a part of his political campaign or preferred policies, unlike his hostility toward immigrants and Muslims and his constant reiteration that African Americans live in a wasteland of crime and violence.

But even if his misogyny was more muted in the early days of the campaign, it appears to have found a receptive audience.

Watch: If Clinton is president, sexism could get worse