What the Hell Happened with White Women Voters?

By Erin Cassese (@ErinCassese) and Meredith Conroy (@sidney_b)

There is mounting speculation that the GOP has a “woman problem.” Prior to the midterms, there was concern that the GOP could not rely on the continued support of white women, particularly college-educated white women, given that just 45 percent of this group supported Trump in 2016, compared to 52 percent who supported Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, in 2012. Moreover, according a poll conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal in March of this year, “President Trump’s positive favorability rating among college-educated white women, which stood just 32 percent when he was inaugurated, is now down even further to an even more dismal 27 percent.”

Additionally, reactions to the Kavanaugh hearings and surveys about the #MeToo movement seemed to signal that GOP women were not in lock step with GOP men in their views on sexual harassment. For example, although neither GOP men nor women have a favorable view of the #MeToo movement, there is a 13 point gap: 15 percent of men who supported Trump hold a favorable view of “#MeToo,” compared to 28 percent of women who supported Trump. Given the political context of the 2018 midterms, with a record number of women running for office and the heightened salience of issues like sexual harassment, many expected that college-educated white women in particular, who slightly favored Clinton in 2016, would throw their support more strongly behind Democratic candidates.

All of these factors suggested that women voters would swing hard in the Democratic direction. But preliminary evidence suggests the change was more modest than anticipated. According to CNN’s exit polls, there was a 3-point decline in white women voters’ support for Republican candidates – 49 percent voted for the Republican house candidate in 2018 compared with 52 percent who voted for Trump in 2016. But a larger shift was evident among college-educated white women, 52 percent of whom supported Clinton in 2016 to compared to 59 percent who supported a Democratic House candidate in 2018. Therefore, educated white women’s support continues to grow within the Democratic Party.

However, political science scholarship finds that women are not a monolith, and that commentators and pundits tend to underestimate the power of partisanship, and overestimate psychological attachments to one’s gender, causing them to over-emphasize women’s attraction to Democratic candidates and causes. Research shows that women have different views on the meaning and importance of their gender, and thus gender attitudes do not have a uniform effect on their political thinking and behavior.

To get a sense of the diversity of political thinking among women voters and the extent of recent shifts away from the Republican Party, we compare responses from the 2016 American National Election Study survey to a likely-voter survey of about 8,600 Americans conducted by YouGov Blue. Both of these surveys include several questions in common, therefore lending themselves to comparison.

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First, we assess support for Democratic House candidates in 2016 compared to 2018 by voter gender and party identification. For all partisan groups (Democrats and Republicans) both male and female voters’ support for their party increased between 2016 and 2018. This was even true of Independents who “lean” toward one party or the other. Between 2016 and 2018, independent leaners on both sides of the aisle came to more closely resemble partisans.

However, truly Independent men and women – those who don’t lean toward either party – diverge; men who identify an Independent were slightly less supportive of Democratic candidates between 2016 and 2018, while women who identify as Independent dramatically increased their support for Democratic candidates from 37 percent in 2016, to 56 percent in 2018. This difference between Independent white women in 2016 and 2018 is statistically significant. Therefore, this preliminary cut suggests that contrary to expectations, Independent women broke for Democrats in 2018, not GOP women. Ten percent of the DFP 2018 sample, and 10 percent of the 2016 ANES sample identified as pure Independents who don’t learn toward either party.

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But how does educational attainment influence support for Democrats among white women? Given pre-election claims that college-educated Republican women were ready to flee the GOP, we might observe differences for this group, compared to Republican white women without a college degree. As we note in our introduction, between 2012 and 2016, support for Democrats increased generally among college-educated white women. However, as our next figure shows, among Republicans, women with a college degree were essentially no more likely to support a Democrat in 2016 compared to 2018 – 7 percent voted Democratic in 2016 compared to 6 percent in 2018. Independent leaning Republicans, both with and without a college degree, grew less supportive of Democratic candidates in 2018. Thus, partisanship seemed to drive women’s voting behavior in 2018, and the Democratic Party gained no ground among white college educated Republican women as a group in 2018.

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For comparison purposes, we also evaluated vote choice among white men by party and educational attainment. We found a similar pattern of results among partisans and partisan leaners, in that men with and without a college degree voted for their own party in greater proportions in 2018 compared to 2016. Independents who don’t lean toward a party were distinctive however. Independent white men with a college degree voted for the Democratic House candidate at a higher rate than Independent white men without a college degree in both 2016 and 2018, though support for Democratic candidates fell 4 points among the college-educated group. With the exception of pure Independents, college education was not associated with distinctive voter behavior in 2018.

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Expectations that women would support Democratic candidates in 2018 stemmed from predictions of a backlash against sexism in the political sphere. But not all women hold progressive views on gender, and not all women respond to political events involving gender in a similar fashion. In fact, many women are themselves considered sexist based on conventional survey measures of sexism.

Our surveys (the ANES and the DFP subsample of about 3,200 registered voters) contained two common items measuring hostile sexism – a form of sexism marked by hostility toward women who (illegitimately) seek power or control over men. These items asked participants to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with two statements:

(1) Women are too easily offended.

(2) Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist. In the figure below, we plotted average scores on this composite measure by gender and party in 2016 and 2018. Scores below zero indicate lower levels of hostile sexism and scores above zero indicate higher levels of hostile sexism.

Between 2016 and 2018, average sexism scores decreased among Democrats and increased among Republicans (including Independent leaners), meaning that the parties grew more polarized in their perspectives on gender and power heading into the 2018 midterms. The increase in hostile sexism on the Republican side was not confined to men – Republican women also scored higher on the hostile sexism scale in 2018. This suggests that rather than responding to current events with a shift toward more progressive views on gender, their views moved in the opposite direction, contrary to expectations about how GOP women would respond.

Once again, Independents who don’t lean toward either party are standouts. Their levels of hostile sexism are comparatively more stable. Therefore, attitudes about gender and sexism probably do not account for Independent women’s changing preferences in 2018, as our first figure shows. As noted above, pure independents are a small proportion of the sample and efforts to collect more data on independent voters will be critical for understanding their behavior moving forward.

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Overall, there’s not much evidence to support the idea that college-educated white Republican women are leaving the GOP. Even Independent women who lean Republican are going all in and voting for Republican candidates at higher rates. Instead, change seems to stem from Independent women and from a tightening of party loyalty among Democrats and Independent-leaning Democrats.

The data presented her show that a college degree isn’t inherently liberalizing; college-educated Republicans (including leaners) either stayed the same or increased in terms of their party loyalty between 2016 and 2018. White, college-educated Republican women voted for Republican candidates at comparable rates in 2016 and 2018. Their vote choice, heightened levels of hostile sexism, and conservative policy preferences suggest that many Republican women will not be swayed by appeals for cross-over voting or by overt sexism in the political arena.

Erin C. Cassese (@ErinCassese) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. Her research explores the behavior of women as voters and candidates for political office in the United States, and she is an Expert Contributor for Gender Watch 2018, a bipartisan media project that explores the role of gender in the 2018 midterm races.

Meredith Conroy (@sidney_b) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, San Bernardino and a senior adviser to Data for Progress. She studies political communication and institutions. Her new book, Sex, Gender, and the 2016 Presidential Election, was published in October.

Ethan Winter