Two years ago, 53 percent of white women helped President Donald Trump win the White House, a data point from the 2016 election emblazoned in the memories of progressive American voters. On Tuesday they saw history, frustratingly, repeat itself in three key races: According to early exit polling from CNN, 60 percent of white women voters favored Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz over Beto O’Rourke; 51 percent preferred Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis over Andrew Gillum; and an overwhelming 75 percent cast ballots for Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp instead of Stacey Abrams.
Decisive wins for Democrats in Texas, Florida, and Georgia would have signaled an outright rejection of Trumpism, and an inexorable blue wave of a much deeper hue. Though election officials continue to count (and recount) votes in Gillum's and Abrams' races, the results seem clear enough: White women voters had once again conspired to thwart Democratic victories when they counted most.
In these races, white women tended to vote more in line with white men than with women in other racial and ethnic groups. By comparison, Latina women gave modest majorities of their votes to Democratic candidates in Texas and Florida (there's no exit polling for Latina women in Georgia's gubernatorial race), while Black women voted overwhelmingly for O'Rourke, Gillum, and Abrams, giving the candidates 94, 82, and 97 percent of their votes respectively.
Black women have long established that they form the bedrock of Democrats’ most reliable voter base, cementing their reputation as valuable party loyalists when 98 percent of Black women voters in Alabama helped Senator Doug Jones defeat Roy Moore, an accused sexual predator. At the time, they were credited with "saving" America. White women, meanwhile, have earned the opposite reputation, and their voting patterns have only become increasingly glaring in a political climate that's otherwise shown women at the helm of progressive movements to resist Trump and nab electoral victories.
Still, white women’s loyalty to Republican candidates in these three high-profile races isn’t the whole story. Nationally, a higher percentage of white women cast votes for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections than they did in 2016, with CNN reporting an even 49-49 split between white women who voted Democrat versus those who voted Republican this year; in 2016, just 43 percent of white women voted Democrat, while 55 percent voted Republican.
“White women are the largest voting bloc in the United States—they make up 40 percent of overall voters and 59 percent of women voters,” said Julie Kohler, a senior vice president at Democracy Alliance, a network for Democratic donors. “A swing of just a few percentage points can determine an election outcome. And that swing helped propel the blue wave we saw in the House Tuesday night.”
To understand why it can both be true that more white women voted for Democratic candidates in 2018 and supported Republicans like Cruz, DeSantis, and Kemp, Kohler said it’s necessary to break up white women voters into three other identity categories: education, religion, and marital status.
The first year of Trump’s presidency saw college-educated white women voters steadily creep away from the Republican Party, with a January Washington Post-ABC News poll showing a 13-point drop in support from the bloc. In other polls, Democrats boasted as much as a 32-point lead over Republicans with college-educated white women, a huge leap from 2014, the last midterm election year, when they only preferred Democrats by two points. And they delivered on the promise of these findings: In Tuesday’s elections, 59 percent of college-educated white women voted Democrat, while only a slight majority—51 percent—did in 2016.
Other voting blocs have been harder to budge. Kohler said the gap between evangelical and non-evangelical white women remains in the double-digits, and white women who are married are still far more likely to vote Republican than are unmarried white women, as has been the case historically.
“There are these multiple truths: Yes, we saw a swing this year,” Kohler said. “No, this swing did not completely alleviate prior patterns. But it did show us that, incrementally, white women evolved in their voting preferences in this election pretty significantly from last year’s election.”
Page Gardner, the founder of Women’s Voices Women Vote, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout among women, was particularly excited about the role unmarried women played in the 2018 midterms. In O’Rourke’s race against Cruz, the difference between these two groups of white women was particularly stark: While a majority of married women backed Cruz, two-thirds of single women cast ballots for O’Rourke.
Gardner says as women continue to delay marriage and more young women come of voting age she only expects this bloc of white women to grow. As it continues to balloon, so will Democrats’ advantage over their opponents across the aisle.
“It’s clear that there’s a rejection of Trump among these key groups,” Gardner said. “There’s no doubt that Trump has been successful in riling up his base for this election, but that base can only take you so far in 2020 because it’s shrinking.”
In addition to the other compounding factors Kohler and Gardner lay out, one of the best indicators of a woman’s voting preference may be how strongly they identify with their gender. Women who feel a stronger sense of what Christopher Stout, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, calls “gender-linked fate”—the idea that what happens to other women matters in one’s own life—are more likely to vote Democrat. Married white women tend to have a "weaker gender identity" than unmarried white women, according to Stout's research; he's found no such differences between married and unmarried Black women. But he says white women’s shift toward Democrats in the 2018 elections suggest a larger swath of white women may be starting to feel a stronger allegiance to their womanhood.
“There’s no doubt that Trump has been successful in riling up his base for this election, but that base can only take you so far in 2020 because it’s shrinking.”
“The Access Hollywood tape, the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings—all of these national events make women think that maybe gender discrimination hasn’t gone away,” Stout explained. “That increases their sense of gender-linked fate.”
It’s precisely this idea of “gender-linked fate”—or rather, some white women’s apparent lack of it—that has been so exasperating for other women to observe. Despite the Trump administration’s attacks on birth control, restrictions on abortion access, and separation of parents and children at the border, segments of women voters still seem stubbornly set against the progressives who have promised to address these issues.
“Is it frustrating me as a white progressive feminist that we’ve only moved from majorities of white women voting Republican to just an even split? Yeah. Would I personally like to see white women be more of a progressive force? Of course,” Kohler said. “But this is how change happens. We’re seeing the early stages of an evolution.”
One of the central questions that has faced Democrats since the 2016 election is whether to adopt more moderate platforms and run more middle-of-the-road candidates in pursuit of winning back Trump voters, or if they should focus on exciting their base with unabashed progressivism. With so much emphasis on white women voters and their potential to sway electoral outcomes, Democrats are going to have to decide if it’s worth counting on an evolving white female electorate to lead them to victory in 2020.
“Candidates like Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke didn’t have to sacrifice their progressive values” to appeal to white women voters, Kohler said, pointing out that these Democratic candidates came within just a few points of their Republican opponents.
“They energized the base, and they broadened it,” she continued. “One of the takeaways from this election is that it’s not worth leaving anyone on the table.”