Can Democrats finally win the white woman vote?

Can Democrats finally win the white woman vote?
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With four months to go until election day, the ultimate political question is receiving renewed attention: Will he stay, or will he go? As they did in 2016, women voters will shape the 2020 presidential election in marked ways. This fall, their vote will most certainly be influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The days after the 2016 presidential election featured a slew of post-mortems assigning blame (or credit) for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE’s victory. Bernie, low Democratic turnout, unusually high turnout among and support from working-class white men, working-class abandonment and frustration with the professional class, latent racism, Clinton's poor campaign strategy, and Russia all received mass media attention. So did the story of white women voters — a phenomenon that generated particular ire with headlines such as “White Women Sold Out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Donald Trump” and A majority of white women (53 percent) voted for Donald J. Trump. This is one of the lasting legacies of the 2016 Presidential election. 

Not unexpectedly, political party affiliation trumped gender with regard to voting preferences. A plurality of white women was Republican or Republican-leaning in 2016 according to Pew Research. The voting behavior of white women was surprising only because we expected them to abandon their party preferences to make electoral history by voting the first woman into the Oval Office. They did not.  

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It is true that, as a whole, women are more likely to vote for Democrats than their male counterparts. This phenomenon often referred to as “the gender gap”, has been notable in American politics since the 1980s. 

However, it’s important to make distinctions. Some of the gender gap is driven by women of color, especially Black women who vote reliably Democratic by huge margins. Some of the gender gap is driven by the loyalty of white men to the Republican Party since the 1960s. When white women are compared solely to white men, they are indeed more Democratic. White women may have given President Trump 53 percent of their vote, but white men gave President Trump 63 percent.  

The possibility of a female president was not enough to win white women. But COVID-19 could be the game-changer in this cycle. In the 2016 swing states of Florida and North Carolina, President Trump won a majority of white women’s votes: 60 percent in Florida and 60 percent in North Carolina

In these states, Trump’s overall margin of victory was a small plurality. Women could have made a difference. While Democrats believed they could win Arizona, the state ended up going for Trump with white women voting 51 percent for the president and 44 percent for Clinton. Together, these three states have 55 electoral votes. Had they gone for Clinton President Trump would have lost the electoral college. 

In these same states, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened markedly in recent weeks. Yet, national and state politicians remain hesitant to impose lockdowns or abandon local control for any type of robust strategy. 

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How might this impact the so-called women’s vote? Research shows that female elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, are more likely to view healthcare as an important political issue and to support health care reform

President Trump recently asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) even as COVID-19 infections spread. Meanwhile, polling shows that women are more likely than their male counterparts to disapprove of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Data shows that older women are moving away from President Trump and that the pandemic is one factor. Women without college degrees may also be turning away from Trump. Combine these trends with a struggling economy still besieged by pandemic closures and the Teflon president might meet his match. 

In 2020, a majority of white women may finally be swept into the Democrat’s presidential coalition. 

Heather James, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Political Science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College-CUNY and the campus coordinator for CUNY's Edward T. Rogowsky internship program in government and public affairs.   

Stephanie Szitanyi, Ph.D. is an assistant dean at the New School and an adjunct instructor at Marymount Manhattan College. Her new book is titled Gender Trouble in the U.S. Military.