It’s cliche to say but remains an indelible truism in American politics elections are decided by who turns out. We often hear in midterms how both parties focus on their bases while the ever crucial Independent and moderate vote waits until the last minute to decide. I’ll leave the debate over whether this is true to another article and day but without any doubt whatsoever if Democrats do not show up at the polls in November they will not see control of Congress for a minimum of another two years and no voters are more important to the party than women.
Starting in the 1960’s the electoral preferences of men and women began to diverge. This initial divergence was hidden and largely attributable to the massive migration of blacks, and black women, to Democrats in massive numbers. It was only during the election of Ronald Reagan when 55 percent of men voted for the candidate but only 47 percent of women did the racial divide in America could no longer explain the widening political preferences of men and women.
This divide has only grown over time. In 1996, Bill Clinton won women by 11 percent. In 2012, Romney won men by six points but Obama won women by double-digits. Four years later, Clinton won women by 13 points but Trump won men by 11 points for a whopping 24 point gap. Depending on who you talk to you will get different answers for why this has occurred. Speaking of the 2012 election, Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University said, “Reagan struck a chord with men, so men moved in a more Republican direction while women stayed put.
Reagan was the first modern President to emphasize trimming back the welfare state. He emphasized building up the US military and played up social issues (to the detriment of the HIV community). Women, meanwhile, are more likely to be the single mother benefiting from the welfare state, more likely to support abortion and liklier to be older. According to data from the University of Maryland looking at long-term election data from 1952-2014, men’s preferences shifted sharply to the GOP in the 70’s and 80’s and has stayed pat while women have not really moved (even including 2012 but not 2016).
In the wake of Reagan, both parties adapted to this reality. Both parties adopted stances that hardened their coalitions at the expense of growing racial and gender polarization. Ever since, Democrats have aggressively targeted their pitches to women and Republicans to men.
For Democrats, their efforts have come in waves. First, the election of 1992 was all about women. In 2000, Al Gore made his Southern nice guy appeal to suburban women. In 2010, Democrats counted on the single, young and hip Obama voter to save their Congressional majorities and in 2016 it was all about having the first women lead a national ticket. History was made. Just not the kind the party wanted.
Also beginning in the 80’s, women began to become a bigger portion of the electorate. In 2016, this meant 8 million more women showed up to the polls despite 52 percent of white women supporting Donald Trump. Democrats have not charted a different electoral strategy since and have themed the 2018 elections similarly. Basically, Democrats seem to have decided 2016 was about Clinton and not the message. Somewhere, Republicans are high-fiving their luck.
Follow the course of Democratic primaries across the country and over 50 percent of the party’s primaries have been won by women. This is not surprising when you consider the party is now a majority-minority coalition where women dominate. Polls have shown Democrats have flocked to the #MeTooMovement while even Republican women show significant skepticism. In the wake of Trump it was inevitable Democrats would turn to women to lead the party forward.
The Marriage Divide
The gender divide is probably the most talked about divide in America in recent years but another began growing at the same time, the marriage gap. In 2000, married couples were called the “deciding factor” in Bush’s extremely narrow election. In 2012, married couples backed Romney by seven points and Trump by eight points. Still, there were shifts in November. Both married and singles backed Trump across the Midwest, while for the first time married women flipped to Clinton by two points nationally. Still, white married and college educated women backed Trump.
Indeed, education level defined the 2016 election. Suburban counties with many, many college educated voters swung dramatically to Clinton, largely due to white college educated singles (read women) moving away from the GOP. Democrats have largely succeeded in special elections across the country due to strength in growing and largely white suburbs while gaining little ground elsewhere.
But, the supposed primary saboteur of the party in 2016 is back and dragging down her party again. Speaking of her election loss and women, Clinton said in an interview we “don’t do well with white men and we don’t do well with married, white women. And part of that is an identification with the Republican Party, and a sort of ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.” Democrats cringed and Republicans coughed/laughed at the gaffe. The idea the Democratic Party preaches empowering women and yet believes women can be pressured into voting a certain way is like mana from heaven for GOP strategists. The ads make themselves, your Democratic candidate supports Clinton’s assertion women cannot decide for themselves.
But, as mentioned above, the 2016 election broke down some of the marriage gap barriers. National exit polls showed Trump doing poorly with single women but in the Midwest Trump won single women in Iowa and Ohio. He actually broke even with them in New Hampshire. Clinton, by contrast, won married women in many Midwestern battlegrounds.
What Decides Elections
Of course, one can have the best and most extensive data set ever and yet not be able to explain every single variable involved in a single election. For example, in 2008, despite an economic downturn John McCain was running dead even with Obama until September. Then, other factors overtook the election and voter preferences changed.
It is this kind of narrative the GOP pedals. Republicans, in the face of dismal poll numbers, have clung to the idea voters of all stripes can be swung by the state of the economy and direction of the country. They point to Trump’s improving poll numbers, the booming economy and North Korea coming to the table to discuss nuclear disarmament.
Democrats counter their narrative by arguing even on the issues the GOP is out of step with the majority of all voters. For example, on healthcare voters trust Democrats by double-digits and according to a Kaiser survey 80 percent of healthcare decisions are made by women. In numerous polls a majority of voters support a higher minimum wage, single payer healthcare and nationwide adoption of paid maternity leave. How it is to be paid for….well, let’s leave that for another day.
For Republicans, the upshot of their narrative if true is the party will be rewarded with continual control of Congress after November. If not, the party might be swamped by angry, mostly college educated and minority women deciding they want the “Mommy Party” back in control of Congress which does not auger well for Trump in 2020.