Hours after Donald Trump was declared the winner of the presidential election, plans for a Women’s March on Washington began to form — a proclamation that Trump was not the women’s choice for president.
After all, Trump brags about groping women, makes degrading comments about women’s bodies, and claimed (and then retracted) that women should be punished for having abortions. And during the campaign, a dozen women accused him of sexual assault.
Hundreds of thousands of women — and men — are estimated to march on Washington during inauguration weekend to protest Trump, and thousands more in cities across the globe. But despite what will be a remarkable show of force, the details of voting data tell a different story about women and Trump. Many women not only voted for him but were key in getting him over the top.
Nationally, Clinton picked up 54 percent of women voters compared with Trump’s mere 42 percent. But Trump outperformed Clinton among white women, winning 53 percent of voters in that demographic. Drilling down further, he beat Clinton among white women without college degrees by 27 points. In the three states that decided the election — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — that margin was enough to send Trump to the White House.
This is not to say that these Trump-supporting women weren’t offended by Trump’s comments or actions. Rather, it unravels the common illusion that women are a cohesive voting bloc. Women’s politics are also shaped by other personal factors.
“There has long been a misconception that women voters vote by their gender identity instead of their party,” Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for Women in Politics, said. “To try to talk about women as a single voting bloc, but to neglect to look at the crosstabs, to neglect to look at the differences in race, age, education, creates this false shock.”
How women voted in 2016
Based on the past 20 years of polling data, women play an important role in general elections in two significant ways: Women disproportionately vote for the Democratic candidate, and they consistently make up more than 50 percent of the electorate.
Big picture, these realities remained true. Clinton won female voters by 12 points and lost male voters to Trump by 11 points, creating the largest gender gap in a presidential election since 1972, according to analysis from the Pew Research Center.
But before the election, Trump’s disadvantage with women seemed to pose an insurmountable challenge — and that doesn’t take the whole picture into account.
Clinton’s success with women is a statistic largely driven by her popularity among minorities. Among college-educated voters, more than 90 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton — 95 percent of black women voters without a college degree also voted for her, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research and the Washington Post. She performed similarly with Hispanic women and nonwhite women.
Trump, on the other hand, found his strength among white women, whom he won by 53 percent overall. Break that number down even further, and Trump’s success is specifically among white women without college degrees, 61 percent of whom voted for him. Clinton actually did 7 points better than Trump with white college-educated women.
To be sure, these data points are coming from exit polls, which can be fallible. (Official numbers on turnout and demographics will be made public with the census report later this year.) Even so, the exit polls confirm familiar narratives from the post-2016 election scramble: that Trump found his strength among the white working class, winning regions President Barack Obama had won in 2008 and 2012. And Clinton couldn’t pull the Obama’s numbers with minorities.
Being a woman isn’t a political unifier
Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway — the first woman to run a winning major party presidential campaign — likes to say the election hinged “between what offends you and what affects you.” She made this comment at a post-election conference at Harvard University:
[Voters] were being told constantly, “Stare at this, care about this, make this the deal-breaker once and for all.” And they were told that five or six times a week about different things. And yet they went, they voted the way voters have always voted: on things that affect them, not just things that offend them.
The Clinton campaign’s strategy to amplify Trump’s misogyny wasn’t necessarily misguided, as Trump’s persistently high unfavorable numbers go to show.
But to Conway’s point, in 2016 the top voting issues were the economy and terrorism, a trend that was true in 2008 and 2012 as well.
“While the working families agenda is very strong, it’s not big enough to get the country back on its feet,” Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster, told the New York Times after the election. “It needs to be embedded in a bigger economic message.”
In Conway and Lake’s co-written 2005 book, What Women Really Want, they conclude that women are generally not single-issue voters, their family status sways how they vote, and their political identities hinge more on party affiliation than gender.
White women without college educations have become an increasingly conservative voting bloc over the past 24 years, Dittmar said, noting that these are also women with more conservative views on gender, making them less likely to push back against a guy who was trying to assume a very traditionalistic view of masculinity.
"All of the evidence we actually have from elections in which women candidates run against men is that people vote for the candidate of their political party," Kathy Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, told Vox’s Kay Steiger.
As much as the Women’s March may imply a single bipartisan coalition sending Trump a message, simply being a woman isn’t that much of a political unifier in an election year.