It’s men, not women, driving Trump’s numbers down
For months, analysts have argued that women voters will be the key to the 2020 election. From poll write-ups to in-depth interviews, women — specifically white, suburban and college-educated women — have been the focus of countless media stories over the last year.
While it’s true that President Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden among women in the national polls by an average of about 15 percentage points, the story of this election may not be about Trump’s poor standing among women, but about the large decline in his support among men.
According to Pew Research’s recently released validated voter analysis of the 2018 midterm electorate, Democrats fared better in that election in part because they made gains among men. As they explained:
“In the 2016 election, Donald Trump won men by 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent) and Hillary Clinton won women by 15 (54 percent to 39 percent), for a difference of 26 points. In 2018, women supported Democratic candidates by a similar margin (18 points, 58 percent to 40 percent) but the GOP advantage among men vanished (50 percent voted Democratic, 48 percent Republican). Trump carried White men by 30 points in 2016 (62 percent to 32 percent), a Republican advantage that shrank to just 12 points in 2018 (55 percent to 43 percent).”
In short, most women were skeptical of Trump in 2016 and their opinion of him hasn’t much changed. An October 2020 poll conducted by Pew Research showed that only 39 percent of women support Trump — the same percentage of women who supported him in 2016. This is also in line with the percentage of support Republicans have garnered from women for much of the past 25 years.
Even among white women, the decline in support for Trump over the course of his presidency has been small. In 2016, Pew’s validated voter analysis showed that white women favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points (47 percent to 45 percent). In 2018, white women were again closely split, but this time, the 2-point advantage favored Democratic candidates (50 percent to 48 percent).
But now, a few white women appear to have swung back to the GOP. Pew’s October poll showed that 49 percent of white women support Trump and 46 percent support Biden. Even so, this 3-point advantage for Trump may not hold — there remains another 5 percent of white women who are either unsure of their choice or say they will cast a ballot for a third-party candidate. Whatever the final margin, it seems unlikely that either party will gain much of an advantage from white women in 2020.
Men, however, are another story altogether. As the passage above notes, between 2016 and 2018, the Republican double-digit advantage among men disappeared and among white men fell by 18 points. Since then, some men have continued to sour on the president. Pew’s October poll showed that among men, Trump was behind Biden by 4 points (45 percent to 49 percent), which amounts to a 15-point swing since 2016. While Trump still carried white men by 12 points, his percentage of support had ticked down to 53 percent.
Despite what the president argued after the Democratic wave in 2018, having his name atop the ballot has not appeared to boost his party’s fortunes among men or women. Instead, it appears that many men have finally come around to seeing Trump through the same critical eyes that most women do.
But those are the numbers nationally. In the battleground states, while both men and women have grown less supportive of Trump, his support among women has declined further. For instance, in Florida in the 2016 election, the exit polls showed that Trump defeated Clinton 52 percent to 43 percent among men, posting a 9 percentage point margin. Although women made up a larger share of the electorate (53 percent to 47 percent) and Trump only earned 46 percent of the women’s vote, since Clinton’s margin was smaller (4 points, or 50 percent to 46 percent), Trump narrowly carried the state. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll of Florida, which had Biden leading overall (47 percent to 42 percent) showed Trump ahead of Biden by 5 points among men (47 percent to 42 percent), but behind by 14 points among women (38 percent to 52 percent).
While these margins are a significant reversal from 2016, what has changed since 2018 is the larger drop in Republican support among men. In the hotly contested 2018 Florida Senate race, the exit polls showed that Republican Rick Scott won men by 16 points (58 percent to 42 percent), but lost women by 13 points (56 percent to 43 percent). Hence, Republicans appear to be down 11 points among men when one compares Sen. Scott’s support in 2018 (58 percent) to Trump’s current support (47 percent). Whereas, among women, Republicans seem to have lost only 5 points (43 percent to 38 percent). In other words, the battleground state story during 2018 was the marked change in the women’s vote, but the story of 2020 appears to be the change in the men’s vote.
For all of Trump’s hyper-masculine posturing, he seems to be turning off men. He also seems to be uniting men and women against him. Were the national October poll margins to hold through the election and were Biden to win, the gender gap, which had stretched to 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent) in 2016 would shrink back down to 6 points (49 percent to 55 percent). This would be the smallest gender gap since 1992.
Whatever happens over the next two weeks, it does not appear that women will much change their minds about Trump. They’ve had his number for years. Instead, men’s votes will be the ones to watch on election night. In short, a Biden win may well be powered by women, but a Trump loss likely will be attributable to men.
Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the author of “Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership.” Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.