Was Hillary Clinton ‘abandoned’ by women voters?

Claire McGing, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump in the recent presidential election came as a shock to many voters and observers. This was especially the case for those (myself included) who believed they were about to bear witness to history and, 96 years after American women won the right to vote, see the election of the first woman President of the US. The timing felt right. According to a CBS poll in June of this year, four out of five Americans believed their country was ready to elect a woman to the role, a doubling of the percentage that felt this way 20 years ago. A PEW poll in August showed that, regardless of their support for Clinton, just over 60 per cent of voters felt it would be ‘very important’ (41 per cent) or ‘somewhat important’ (21 per cent) to have a woman President.

A few weeks before the poll was conducted, at the DNC in Philadelphia, Clinton had become the first-ever woman nominated by a major party for the US presidency. Unlike Trump she had a vast array of political experience and, while neither candidate came out shining over the course of the (highly gendered and sexist) campaign, the controversy over Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State seemed to pale in comparison to Trump’s endless list of scandals. Polls on the eve of the election suggested that she had a narrow edge over Trump – even if her national lead had fallen and her advantage in key swing states had weakened – and most pundits predicted a Clinton victory.

And, of course, she had the overwhelming backing of the female electorate, strengthened by a series of misogynistic scandals involving Trump. Or at least this large support base was widely presumed. Media reports posited that women voters would ‘save’ Clinton Even educated Republican women alienated by Trump’s nomination were said to be supporting Clinton in significant numbers, with some analysts even suggesting that this group could cost Trump the election. So, when Clinton lost the election (despite winning the popular vote) it is unsurprising that the narrative turned to questioning why women had ‘abandoned’ Clinton. But how accurate is this claim?

First, exit polls show that a majority of women who turned out to vote did support Clinton: 54 per cent of them, compared to just 41 per cent of men. If only women voted, Clinton would most likely be the President Elect today and not Trump. The question of whether she mobilised women to turn out to vote in larger numbers is an interesting one, but awaits the publication of further data to discern. Is the US women have voted in higher numbers since the presidential elections of the 1980s and this holds across all racial groups. Of all eligible voters in 2012, 64 per cent of women voted compared to 60 per cent of men.

Second, contrary to excitable media reports and anecdotes about the female ‘swing’ to Clinton, the polls never suggested that women would vote for her in numbers anything larger than a bare majority. This is because most women, like men, vote on partisan lines and not on the basis of gender. Most Democratic women would vote for her anyway (the Democrats did not lose any female support between 2012 and 2016 though their vote with men was down by four points); the presence of the first major party woman candidate was simply not enough to entice Republican women to cross the line. Thus 90 per cent of women (and 87 per cent of men) who identify with the Democrats voted for Clinton and 89 per cent of Republican women and (90 per cent of men) voted for Trump.

Among non-aligned voters gender may have played a bigger role, with independent women giving Clinton considerably higher levels of support (47 per cent) than independent men of which half voted for Trump (51 per cent).

CNN Exit Polls (2016)
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Source: CNN Exit Poll (2016)

Third and related to above, to fully understand the role that gender plays in influencing voter support, we need to consider intersectional differences. Simply put, women (like men) are not a monolithic group and gender intersects with other identities in complex ways to structure lived experiences and thus political ideology.

Narratives about the failure of women to support Clinton en masse miss one crucial point: that 68 per cent of Latino women and an enormous 94 per cent of black women did vote for her, much higher levels than their male counterparts of 63 per cent and 82 per cent respectively.

With Trump winning a majority of the white female vote (52 per cent), a considerable amount of the post-election focus has been on the failure of white women to vote for Clinton (even if the blame is often put on women as an aggregate group). While it is important to point out that white men voted for Trump in significantly larger numbers (62 per cent) than white women did, it is incorrect to say that white women ‘abandoned’ her in large numbers given they did not support her party to begin with. Even though the Democrats have attained more female support than the Republicans over the past eight elections, the majority of white women have voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 2004. 56 per cent of white women voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, while John McCain and George W. Bush each won 55 per cent of this group’s vote in 2008 and 2004. Education also plays a role in determining how white American women vote: 51 per cent of white college-educated women supported Clinton and 61 per cent of white non-college women supported Trump.



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