The Paradox of White Women Voters
Social science has ideas about how progressives can coax them away from Trump
Posted Feb 20, 2018
As the 2018 midterm approaches, one of the most closely tracked demographic groups will be white women. When Donald Trump won the presidency, these voters took a lot of the credit, or the blame. According to the election exit polls, 61% of non-college-educated white women voted for Trump, and so did 44% of college-educated white women.
For President Trump's opponents, especially progressive women, these are agonizing statistics. Why, they wondered, would women reject the first viable female candidate for president?
Social scientists shed some light on this perplexing question. As it turns out, it's a family issue.
Single women were more likely to support Hillary Clinton than Trump. Research shows us that married white women cast ballots based less on individual self-interest and more on what they think is good for their children and, especially, their husbands. They're conservative as a group, and Republicans usually win their votes.
Sociologist Kelsy Kretschmer of Oregon State University, coauthor of a recent study examining female voting patterns, explains it this way: "Women consistently earn less money and hold less power, which fosters women's economic dependence on men. Thus, it is within married women's interests to support policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status."
And, as Kretschmer told a reporter: "We know white men are more conservative, so when you're married to a white man you get a lot more pressure to vote consistent with that ideology."
Married white women may see more equality between the sexes as hurting their husbands rather than benefiting themselves. They may feel a sense of what social scientists call "white fragility" — in this case white male fragility, especially in the job market. They may fear that immigrants are taking the good jobs their male partners once held. Trump galvanizes such fears in his speeches and in his tweets.
There is a way to counter the effects of the barrage that could change white married women's voting patterns: Focus their concerns about family less on their husbands and more on their children and grandchildren, especially their daughters and daughters-in-law.
It is an unalterable fact that the daughters and daughters-in-law of white married voters will be in the workplace for most of their lives. As the mothers age, they are very likely to outlive their male partners, and they may have to rely on their children for financial support. It could well be the younger women in the family that arrive with the necessary cash in hand.
An important subset of Trump’s white female supporters have launched their own #MeToo campaign: #SilenceIsNotSpiritual.
And even if a female Trump voter doesn't need the financial aid of younger women, she will surely understand that the paychecks of her daughters and daughters-in-law will be integral to the next generation's security. The more white married women care about the welfare of their children and grandchildren, the more they have an incentive to see that younger women do well. That includes voting for candidates who explicitly make such connections.
The message can be delivered in a couple of ways: data and personal stories that illustrate the ripple effects of fair treatment of women, and examples of the Trump administration's toxic approach to women's issues.
For example, Trump's Labor Department refused to defend an Obama-era rule that would have given 3.2 million women the right to overtime pay.
The president revoked other Obama-era actions that protected working women in particular: Trump axed an order that required companies to transparently explain the way hourly pay was calculated (more women than men are paid by the hour). He canceled a rule that banned federal contractors from forcing women to settle sexual harassment and assault cases by arbitration. And he blocked a requirement that large companies report how much they pay workers by race and gender, which was meant to help identify and close persistent wage gaps.
Trump initially stalled action on proposals that would expand paid family and medical leave, a bread-and-butter women's issue. His 2019 budget calls for just six weeks of paid leave for new parents only — those with personal medical problems or those caring for a family member need not apply.
Trump's reproductive health policies should also be of concern to white married women. Many of his female supporters are fiercely anti-abortion, but they aren't against birth control: The Guttmacher Institute reports that 99% of American women aged 15-44 who have ever had sexual intercourse used at least one contraceptive method. Yet the administration is trying to roll back birth control insurance coverage and to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides contraceptives to 80% of its 2.5 million clients each year.
Finally, the issue of sexual harassment may have resonance with white married women worried about their children in the workplace. Julie Kohler, senior vice president for the Democracy Alliance, a progressive donor network, noted in the Nation that evangelical women — an important subset of Trump's white female supporters — have launched their own #MeToo campaign: #SilenceIsNotSpiritual. According to Kohler, they have begun "tiptoeing into the political fray" over abuse allegations.
Trump's approval ratings show the potential in targeting his female supporters. The website FiveThirtyEight reports a recent widening of the Trump "gender gap" among Republicans: Seven percentage points separate GOP men and women, with women less favorably disposed toward the president. That represents, according to the analysis, "an erosion of support that would have been more than enough to deny Trump the White House" in 2016.
White women, Kohler says, "do not — and likely never will — constitute the progressive base. But in this unique political moment, there is evidence that some … may be reprioritizing their political interests."
Trump's opposition should listen to the social scientists, read the data, and seize the day.
A version of this piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times.