One of the most notable trends to emerge from the 2016 presidential election was the large number of white women who helped solidify Donald Trump’s victory. Many of them lived in suburbs, and their support for a grab-’em-by-the-pussy candidate, despite his sexist, racist, and derogatory behavior on the campaign trail, was a dark reminder that some women were still more interested in protecting their privilege than fighting for equality.
But as the 2020 election season got under way, pollsters and journalists predicted this time would be different. Countless articles with headlines like “Revenge of the Wine Moms” and “Why Suburban Women Changed Their Minds” suggested that white women would finally come around. These mea-culpa-style interviews seemed backed up by numbers: In the 2018 primaries, this group helped propel a blue wave in the suburbs, and pre-election data suggested it would do the same in 2020. It felt significant to understand whether these women, who make up America’s largest voting bloc, would make the same mistake after four long years of a president who encouraged white supremacy, separated immigrant children from their parents, and blatantly lied about the coronavirus.
But exit polls quickly told a different story. While 90 percent of Black women voters supported Joe Biden, along with almost 70 percent of Hispanic women, the available data shows that up to 55 percent of white women voted for Trump. And while that number could change in the coming months, it’s clear that seemingly no discriminatory policies or hateful speech will stop these voters from supporting Trump, or the next candidate just like him.
To help make sense of white women’s voting habits, and why they matter, the Cut spoke with Jane Junn, a political-science and gender-studies professor at the University of Southern California.
First of all, how trustworthy are the numbers we have right now? The exit-poll data used by most major media outlets shows that between 52 to 55 percent of white women supported Trump, while an academic survey from the Cooperative Election Study (CES) puts that number at around 46 percent.
It’s hard to do an accurate exit poll, so of course there’s going to be some error in some of these statistics. But the general trend of white women supporting Trump in large numbers is accurate. I don’t think that’s controversial. We’re not talking about 20 to 30 percent of this group voting for Trump — we’re talking about 40 to 55 percent. Even if it’s not a majority, there’s still a large group of people. No pretzel-bending logic can change that.
Are you surprised?
I’m not surprised at all. White female voters have been consistently voting Republican since 1952. In the 1960 election, white men preferred John F. Kennedy by a one-point margin, whereas white women supported Richard Nixon. The only two Democrats they’ve voted for since the 1950s are Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton — both southern guys who are pretty frickin’ masculine and could have been Republicans in another life.
Why do white women so reliably support Republicans?
The Republican Party is the party of keeping the white heteropatriarchy intact. And that’s appealing to many white women voters. One reason is because of how they were politically socialized growing up — stuff they’ve heard at the dining-room or kitchen table for many years that makes them feel heroic and patriotic in casting their ballots for Trump. But part of it is wanting to stay on top of the racial hierarchy. These women have agreed to accept second-class status with their gender, as long as the Republican Party puts them first with race and keeps them safe.
It seems like Trump directly appealed to this idea by telling suburban women he would protect them from low-income housing and get their husbands “back to work” — as if they were all still living like ’50s housewives.
It’s a thinly veiled promise to keep nonwhites out of their neighborhood. It’s this concept of the “protection racket” in feminist literature, where men say “I’m going to put you on that pedestal, but you’re going to be in a cage.” There are a lot of white women on the left who reject that. But there’s a long history of white women needing and wanting to be ahead of Black people, Latinx people, Asian people, Indigenous people. They may rationalize their votes by saying their Republican vote is better for their 401(k) or their religious beliefs, but it’s also about racism.
So why do we pay so much attention to these women? I think a lot of progressives are ready to just give up on this group and stop talking about them, especially when BIPOC women are doing so much advocacy on the left.
We focus on them because they are the biggest slice of the electoral pie and are potentially a swing group. Who’s the 800-pound gorilla in American elections? White women. They make up almost 40 percent of voters [white men make up roughly 36 percent.] When trying to figure out what happened in an election, political scientists focus on two things: conversation and mobilization. Whose mind can you change? White women’s votes are the most evenly distributed between Trump and Biden, so that’s where campaigns go. That’s why you saw so much news about “Oh, maybe we can flip the wine moms or the suburban women,” even though the suburbs are not exclusively white and you can also find white female Trump supporters in cities. The Panera moms are persuadable, so that’s why you have to study them and think about them.
But how persuadable are they, really? While some early numbers from the CES suggest the slight majority of white suburban women voted for Biden (while the majority of white women in rural areas voted for Trump), no large-scale shift happened. Were the articles about this group swinging to the left misrepresentative?
Talking to women on the street is not a systematic study. Journalists would need to have spoken with millions of so-called wine moms to persuade me that their votes would dramatically change this election. That’s not to say the trend isn’t true. These stories revealed that people do change their minds. And I think it made people feel good to believe.
There’s been a lot written about how BIPOC women reliably support Democrats and how Black women in particular are the ones who actually mobilized enough voters to flip key counties blue and deliver Biden this election. Another political scientist told me “majorities vote, but minorities knock on doors, post yard signs, etc.” Why is that?
Because their lives depend on it. If not for the Democrats holding the line against violence against people of color, then the party of white supremacy would reign. Many voters of color feel like they don’t really have a choice. And when you don’t have the resources or a seat at the table, you’ve got to work a lot harder. They cannot let one election go by, or one voter go by, who they don’t try to mobilize. The gender gap between parties only really emerged after BIPOC women gained the actual right to vote and consolidated behind the Democratic Party. Since then, they have carried white women on their backs, making them look more progressive than they are.
It’s frustrating to think about how white women are getting undue credit for being progressive. And it feels more productive to uplift BIPOC women doing the actual work. Is that the group journalists, campaigns, and political scientists should focus on?
I don’t think it’s an either-or situation. You can’t ignore a problem. You can’t just cover up a hole in your floor with a rug. But you also have to celebrate who it is that brought the food to the table. I mean, I think both of those things should be happening.
But white people need to try and understand the people in their group who voted for Trump. I don’t have that problem in my family, and most voters of color do not. As much as there’s discussions about people living in little bubbles, the fact of the matter is you still got an Uncle Mike, Aunt Anne, and Cousin Karen who don’t think how you think. Do you want to win the election again next time? You can throw up your hands and say, “Oh man, Karen’s a bitch,” or you can engage her and say, “Karen, look at yourself now. Get a feminist consciousness and see the world.” If you give up, then you’re going to lose.
But if this pattern of white women voting Republican hasn’t changed since the ’50s, is there really any hope for change, or any point in having awkward discussions with relatives?
I’m hopeful when I look at what young voters are doing. We see an overwhelming number of them vote for Biden, mostly because they are people of color — that’s just the way the demography of the population is going. And when you look at the data, even young white people are more progressive than older people [college-educated white women have been steadily shifting to the left over the past eight years, and voters under 30 supported Biden by the widest margin of any age group]. Even if they’re Republican, they’re much more tolerant and open-minded, especially when it comes to issues like gender and sexuality and climate change. Their world is going to be Kamala Harris as vice-president of the United States of America, which sends the message that women and nonwhite people belong in the White House.