Two years ago, 53 percent of white women voters cast their ballots not for the first woman presidential nominee from a major party, but for a man who had been caught on tape bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”
Political scientists said this should come as no surprise, since women have never been a reliable voting bloc. Women — especially white women — vote their party, not their gender.
But a lot has changed since 2016.
White women stayed loyal to Republicans in some key races, helping to reelect Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas and send Ron DeSantis to the governor’s mansion in Florida. But across the country as a whole, about 49 percent of white women voted for Democrats in House races, while another 49 percent voted for Republicans, according to exit polling by CNN.
In 2016, by contrast, just 43 percent of white women voted for Democratic House candidates, while 55 percent voted for Republicans.
Half of white women is hardly a landslide, but the shift contributed to a history-making night for Democrats, who scored the highest margin of victory ever among women voters in a midterm election, with 59 percent of women across the country voting for Democrats in the House.
White women, especially those with college educations, have been moving away from Republicans for several years, Susan Carroll, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, told Vox. And while the reasons are many, “it seems pretty clear that it’s a response to the politics of the Trump administration and the Republican Party.”
For some white women who voted Republican or stayed home in 2016, President Donald Trump’s degrading comments about women may have made the difference. For others, maybe it was the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. For still others, maybe it was the leadership of women activists and candidates of color.
Whatever the case, after two years of a Trump presidency, some white women have gotten to a place where many women of color have been for some time: disgusted with Republicans and ready to turn out in force for Democrats. The question is how long they’ll stay there — and whether more white women will join them.
This year, women supported Democrats in unprecedented numbers. White women were a big part of the shift.
In 2016, it came as a shock to some that a majority of white women voters were willing to support a man who talked about grabbing women’s genitals — and who’d been accused of actually grabbing and kissing women without their consent. But some parts of Trump’s message — in particular, his demonization of immigrants and Muslims — appealed to some white women just as much as they appealed to white men.
Shortly after the election, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times talked to women of all races about their reasons for voting for Trump. A number said they were disturbed “by an America that seems to have embraced multiculturalism and political correctness without question,” she wrote. “They said they did not understand the Black Lives Matter movement, wondered why Democrats seemed so fixated on transgender access to bathrooms and tended to be enraged at the way veterans are treated and violence directed at the police.”
Meanwhile, history suggested that some groups of white women might break for Trump. As Vox’s Tara Golshan reported in 2017, white women without college educations had been skewing more conservative for decades.
And women are no more single-issue voters than men are. While they may not have liked Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape, many said they ended up making their voting decisions on the economy and terrorism. Kellyanne Conway, now a senior counselor to Trump, said after the election that women “voted the way voters have always voted: on things that affect them, not just things that offend them.”
In 2018, at least some white women may have decided that the policies of the Republican Party, with Trump at its head, affect them after all.
This year saw the largest-ever share of women voting for Democrats in a midterm election, according to the Washington Post. The surge was mostly due to the shift among white women, as well as among independent women. (56 percent of independent women voted for Democrats in 2018, compared with just 48 percent in 2016.)
White, college-educated women in particular swung heavily left in 2018, with 59 percent voting for Democratic House candidates, compared with just 49 percent in 2016.
Women of color, meanwhile, voted for Democrats at high rates, just as they did in 2016. Ninety-two percent of black women and 73 percent of Latina women voted for Democratic House candidates this year, compared with 94 percent of black women and 69 percent of Latina women in 2016.
White women didn’t deliver for Democrats everywhere. In Texas, a full 60 percent voted for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, helping carry him to reelection. In Florida, 51 percent of white women voted for Republican Ron DeSantis for governor.
Still, the combined effect of white women and women of color was significant: When Democrats assume control of the House in January of next year, it will be, in large part, because women put them there.
From health care to the Kavanaugh hearings, white women had lots of reasons for abandoning the party of Trump
Just as white women had plenty of reasons for supporting Trump in 2016, they’ve had plenty of reasons to pull away from him and his party since. There’s Trump’s demeanor and his repeated insulting comments about women, Carroll notes. Anyone who thought the Access Hollywood tape might be an isolated occurrence quickly learned otherwise when Trump took office.
His policy positions, like his support for getting rid of Obamacare, may also be a problem for many women. “Women are primary caregivers in many cases, and faced with dealing with rising health care costs and caring for folks who have health problems in their families, whether they be children or elderly parents,” Carroll points out.
The #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings may also have played a role, Carroll said, in turning women away from the Republican Party as a whole. During the hearings, women voters could clearly see that there were no women on the Republican side of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Republicans had to bring in an outside prosecutor to ask questions. “That was just a public display, I think, of some of the problems that the Republican Party has in terms of women,” Carroll said.
Those hearings, during which Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford calmly shared her recollections and Kavanaugh raged at the injustice of the allegations against him, didn’t unite all women. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted after the hearings, 69 percent of Republican women said the nominee should be confirmed. And as Alexis Grenell pointed out in an op-ed at the New York Times, a white woman, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, cast a crucial vote to place Kavanaugh on the court.
But the hearings, coming after nearly two years of frequent misogyny from Trump, had an effect. In the same Politico/Morning Consult poll, 36 percent of voters said they were more likely to back a senator who opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, compared with 27 percent who said they’d be more likely to vote for someone who supported it. Among Democratic women, 61 percent said they’d be much less likely to back a pro-Kavanaugh candidate.
These attitudes may have been at play on Tuesday, as fewer than 40 percent of women voters supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation, according to CNN. Kavanaugh wasn’t always a winning issue for Democrats; 62 percent of North Dakota voters who said Heidi Heitkamp’s vote against Kavanaugh was an important factor in their decision to vote for her opponent. But across the board, the women who turned out on Tuesday disapproved of Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, women voters on Tuesday had a far more unfavorable view of Trump than men did, according to ABC exit polls. Fifty percent of male voters approved of his job performance, compared with only 39 percent of women.
Women likely also helped elect the wave of women candidates who won on Tuesday, including historic firsts like the first Muslim women in Congress. Fifty-three percent of women voters said it was very important to elect more women to office, compared with just 37 percent of men, according to ABC.
For some women who felt unimpressed with their options in 2016, 2018 was a chance to voice a growing sense that their government wasn’t listening to them.
“With everything that’s going on right now, with Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, it’s not a matter of if I believe her or not, it’s a matter of it is,” said Kim Boudreau Smith of Birmingham, Michigan, whom I met on a canvassing outing with state legislature candidates Mari Manoogian and Mallory McMorrow in October.
Smith hadn’t voted for Trump or Clinton in 2016 — “it wasn’t feeling right,” she said — but she was excited to vote for women this year. “I’m tired of the masculine leadership,” she told the women running to represent her.
White women have joined with women of color — for now
For a lot of white women, the last two years have been about getting to where many women of color already were. At the Women’s Convention, put on by Women’s March organizers in Detroit last year, a panel called “Confronting White Womanhood” struck a chord — it was so popular that panelists had to put on a second session to accommodate all the women who’d been unable to fit into the first. As Hannah Smothers of Cosmopolitan reported, the panel discussed the pitfalls of “white saviorism” and the history of white women’s involvement in violence against black men.
After the 2016 election, “things feel more dire, particularly for white people,” panel organizer Heather Marie Scholl told Smothers.
“We haven’t often felt that,” she added. “Communities of color have, but it’s new for us.”
White women have long had an incentive to align themselves politically with white men. As Grenell wrote at the Times, “white women benefit from patriarchy by trading on their whiteness to monopolize resources for mutual gain. In return they’re placed on a pedestal to be ‘cherished and revered,’ as Speaker Paul D. Ryan has said about women.”
But, Grenell notes, that position on the pedestal comes at a cost: “White women are expected to support the patriarchy by marrying within their racial group, reproducing whiteness and even minimizing violence against their own bodies.”
To some degree, the events of 2017 and 2018 made that cost clear. Maybe it was the Obamacare repeal efforts, Trump’s comments about women, the Kavanaugh hearings, or the Trump administration’s rollback of reproductive rights. Some were surely helped in their decision by the leadership of women of color, like the activists who stepped in to head the Women’s March or the many women of color running for office around the country, from Stacey Abrams to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Whatever the case, white women finally decided that the drawbacks of standing with the white men of the Republican Party outweighed the benefits.
Of course, it’s not clear how long the coalition of women voters forged in this election will hold together. “Confronting White Womanhood,” like a lot of activism focusing on white women in the past two years, wasn’t just about getting white women to vote around issues that affect them. It was about convincing them to show up and fight for the rights of people of color even when their lives as white women weren’t directly impacted — yet.
Even with a Democratic majority in the House, the agenda of the Trump administration, from restricting voting rights to demonizing immigrants to overturning Roe v. Wade, isn’t going away. Much of this agenda stands to affect people of color more directly than white women — even if, as was the case with Kavanaugh, they eventually feel its sting.
In the past two years, at least some of these white women have mobilized. The question for Democrats in 2020 and beyond is what it will take to mobilize the rest — and to keep them in action even when they’re not the ones most at risk.