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The betrayal of white women voters: in pivotal state races, they still backed the GOP

The myth of women voters as a cohesive progressive voting bloc.

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally to show support for Ohio Republican congressional candidate Troy Balderson on August 4, 2018, in Lewis Center, Ohio.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The midterm election confirmed once again that black women show up for progressive candidates. But white women? Not so much. As a black feminist historian, I’m not surprised, but I am always disappointed by the ways white women vote.

As exit polls roll in from some of the high-profile races of 2018, it appears that black women voted overwhelmingly — specifically, 92 percent nationwide — for progressive candidates. In three key races where Democrats challenged conservative incumbents, such as Florida’s Andrew Gillum, Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, black women turned out in similarly high numbers for these progressive candidates. The election of black women such as Massachusetts’s first black woman Congress member, Ayanna Pressley, Lucy McBath in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, and Connecticut’s first black woman Congress member, Jahana Hayes, were also important outcomes carried by black women. In all the races in which exit poll data exist, black men were not too far behind in turning out for progressive candidates.

But nationally, white women were a much more divided group. Forty-nine percent of white women voted Republican nationwide (49 percent voted Democratic too). Forty-seven percent of white women voted for Gillum, while O’Rourke only received 39 percent and Abrams 25 percent of the white female vote. This early exit poll data follows a disturbing recent political trend: The majority of white women have not been part of a Democratic voting bloc throughout the 2000s.

While many white women and the majority of voters of color tend to vote more progressively, disaggregating these polls by race and gender reveals some hard truths about the potential for building a progressive coalition. White women and even Latinx voters of all genders continue to lag behind black voters — in particular black female voters — when it comes to showing up for Democrats.

One of most repeated statistics from the 2016 election is that more than half of white women voted for Donald Trump. Despite recent polls suggesting the percentage might be slightly less, the headlines for the 2018 midterms could and should be similarly scathing in its critique of white female voters.

And, to be frank, a vote for a large percentage of GOP candidates at this point in our nation’s history is largely a vote for white supremacy, xenophobia, and misogyny. The Republican Party has not distanced itself from the rise of contemporary white nationalism — Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis spoke at a Muslim-bashing event alongside white nationalists Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon. Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz refused to denounce the racist comments of Republican Rep. Steve King.

Beyond embracing bigoted rhetoric, today’s GOP has refused to acknowledge the pervasiveness of racist policing, pushed for restrictive immigration, and confirmed an alleged sexual predator to the Supreme Court. In spite of this, white female voters show up by the millions for the GOP.

It’s been said many times that we should “trust black women.” Those platitudes expressed by nonblack women through GIFs, memes, and cute T-shirts mean very little if black women cannot count on nonblack women to faithfully show up for the best interests of those affected by white supremacy, poverty, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia, or homophobia. So where do we go from here?

White women have a history of voting for conservative candidates in aggregate

Among women voters, white women voters continue to be the weakest link. They are also among the most visible in public discussions about the need for change. While white men remain the strongest opposition to electoral politics skewing left, white women heading to the polls continue to choose to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy. In the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, the majority of white women voted for the GOP candidate. The numbers don’t lie.

The historical record bears a brutal truth: White women have always been active participants in sustaining white supremacy in America. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s groundbreaking book, Mother of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, offers a robust history of how white women reinforce white supremacy. White women educators censored textbooks and downplayed the role of slavery in the Civil War as a way to infuse the public education curriculum with white supremacist politics. White women were also an integral part of the Ku Klux Klan. White mothers virulently and violently protested the integration of schools. This abundance of evidence contextualizes what happened in this most recent election — it’s tradition.

Calling out white women’s continued support of conservative politicians isn’t excusing or ignoring white men’s commitment to electing these candidates. It’s an assertion of a profound and perpetual sense of betrayal. Far too many white women are willing to throw women of color under the bus — and, indeed, vote against their own best interests — in favor of white supremacy and, often, misogyny.

Latinx voters are also more conservative

Digging deeper, we also need to ask difficult questions about the growing Latinx voting demographic. In all but a few races such as the New York gubernatorial race in which 93 percent of Latina women voted for the Democratic candidate, Andrew Cuomo, both Latinx men and women fell below 70 percent in their support of more progressive candidates. For example, in the Florida gubernatorial race, only 49 percent of Latino men voted for Gillum and only 58 percent of Latina women voted for him. In the Texas Senate race, only 66 percent of Latina women voted for O’Rourke and only 62 percent of Latino men voted for him.

Exit polls don’t account for racial differences among Latinx voters. Nevertheless, it is unnerving that such a significant percentage of Latinx voters could vote for candidates who aligned with a president hell-bent on rhetoric and policies that criminalize and demonize people from Mexico, Central America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Because Latinx voters are composed of different nationalities and races, many may distance themselves from the Latinx people they see the Trump administration targeting.

Sociologist Helen Marrow refers to some anti-immigrant sentiments among Latinx voters as “racialized nativism,” whereby Latinx citizens and permanent residents feel they suffer a loss of economic opportunities as a result of undocumented Latinx immigrants. Additionally, religion plays a significant role in shaping a conservative segment of the Latinx electorate, including those opposing birth control, abortion, marriage equality, and the rights of trans people. This social conservatism has and does lead millions of Latinx voters to support conservative candidates, in spite of explicit racism and xenophobia.

Latinx voters are not yet a fully reliable progressive voting demographic. This is and will be a formidable challenge for organizing around progressive candidates — but perhaps not as insurmountable as galvanizing white women to repudiate white supremacy and sexism with their votes.

The exit polls from the 2018 midterms don’t give us the whole story. But the snapshot they provide does tell us that black women continue to lead the charge for progressive electoral politics. Despite voter suppression and disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, which are significant barriers for black voter participation, black women flip districts and make formerly “unwinnable” races highly competitive. If you’re not voting like a black woman, you are probably on the wrong side of history.

At this juncture, the building of a broad coalition of voters requires intentional work from progressive white female and Latinx voters, which includes voter education and organizing with these voting blocs in the years between and leading up to elections. Women as a cohesive progressive voting bloc may never be a reality, but progressive white female voters must continue to work in their communities to move more white women to the left.

Treva B. Lindsey is a professor at Ohio State University. Find her on Twitter @divafeminist.

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