Predicting How Women Will Vote Requires Looking Beyond Gender Alone

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Meriel Jane Waissman/Getty

Heading into the 2020 presidential election, campaign strategists would do almost anything for a crystal ball to predict voting patterns and give them the key to lock up a large voting bloc. Securing the "women's vote" would be a major coup, yet in this adaptation from their recently published book, A Century of Votes for Women, political science professors Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder explain why this is easier said than done.

What will women voters do? Since the 19th Amendment prohibited the denial of voting rights on the basis of sex a century ago, the press, the public and especially politicians have sought to answer this question. Yet expectations for women voters are often more grounded in assumptions and stereotypes than in evidence, and predicting how women will vote requires looking beyond gender alone.

In the years immediately following suffrage, the conventional wisdom was that women didn't really want to vote at all. Headlines declared women's suffrage a "failure." In the words of one writer, "The American woman ...won the suffrage in 1920. She seemed, it is true, to be very little interested in it once she had it."

In fact, women's turnout varied considerably in the years after suffrage, but that was due in large part to external factors rather than gender. For example, in states where competition was high and barriers (like poll taxes and literacy tests) low, more than half of newly-eligible women turned out to vote. Where the opposite was true, very few women exercised their new right. The conditions in which women got the right to vote explained as much, or more, than the fact that they were women. But assuming women weren't interested fit better with the "politics is a man's game" conventional wisdom.

In the decades that followed, stereotypes continued to shape characterizations of women voters. According to both the press and scholars, women in the 1940s and 1950s voted as their husbands instructed: "Men discuss politics with their wives—that is, they tell them—but they do not particularly respect them. On the side of the wives, there is trust; on the side of the husbands, apparently, there is the need to reply or to guide."

Did women take direction from their husbands? Maybe. Surveys didn't ask about the direction of political influence so we can't offer a definitive answer, despite many confident claims. A female writer proposed a different hypothesis in 1956: "If married couples tend to vote the same way—and they do—it is because their environment gives them the same orientation, rather than because the woman rubber-stamps the man's choice."

By 1980, women were more likely to exercise their right to vote than were men, and more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. Why? In that election year, the Republican Party first took clear positions against—and the Democratic Party clear positions for—the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. Observers at the time (and since) assumed that women prioritized their own equality and rights, and "women's issues" were given the lion's share of blame, or credit, for this new partisan divide.

But are women's issues the root cause of the gender gap? Women and men don't actually report very different positions on issues like abortion. Even when they do disagree—such as on sexual harassment and equal pay—other issues usually have a bigger impact on women's vote. Moreover, women can be found on all sides of these divides—pro-choice and pro-life, #MeToo and #NotAllMen. As a result, women's issues can and do push women in both liberal and conservative directions.

What, then, explains the emergence of the gender gap? One answer: Men. While observers tend to react to any male-female differences by asking what women did differently, a closer look suggests that in fact, it was mostly men who shifted parties, at least initially. In 1964, men and women were equally likely to identify with the Democratic Party. Across the next two decades, both men and women became less likely to identify as Democrats, but it was men who defected at a far greater rate than women.

Why did (some) men abandon the Democratic Party? Why did (more) women stay? The answers are complex, and require careful attention to race, geography and education. A big part of the answer appears to be differences over social welfare policies. Unlike attitudes on women's issues, women and men consistently differ in their support for government programs for children, the poor, infirm and elderly, with men more likely to express conservative positions, which helped push them toward the GOP.

Furthermore, social welfare preferences work in concert with other attitudes. Since the 1960s, press coverage and opinions about social welfare have been intertwined with racial attitudes—conservatives on racial issues tend to be conservatives on social welfare, and vice versa. Women are more likely to express egalitarian values, and those views also help explain why more women stuck with the Democratic Party.

Indeed, race—both attitudes and identity—is crucial to any understanding of women voters. Two things are true at the same time: One, women today are more likely to vote Democratic than are men—the gender gap. We observe this pattern both in the electorate overall and within each racial and ethnic group. Two, in most elections, a majority of white women vote Republican, and a large majority of black women vote Democratic. In other words, while more white women vote for Democrats than do white men, most white women vote for Republicans in most elections. And while a large majority of black men vote for Democrats, the percentage of black women who vote Democratic is even greater. While each group has unique dynamics, we observe similar patterns among other racial and ethnic groups. When we focus on the gender gap only, we tend to mistakenly view women as a cohesive, Democratic-leaning group. When we are attentive to race as well, our understanding of women voters becomes more nuanced and much more accurate.

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Gender gap persists across racial groups, but a majority of white women vote Republican and a super-majority of women of color vote Democratic (exit polls), 2000–12. Cambridge University Press

Expectations were high for a historic gender gap in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Yet what was most surprising about 2016 was how normal the patterns were. In a contest featuring the first female major party nominee and an opponent who used sexist language and behavior, many predicted that women would flee the Republican party and cast their ballots for a woman for president. However, while the gender gap in 2016 was big, it wasn't beyond what we've seen in previous elections. It turns out that women, like men, don't vote based on their gender alone. Instead the 2016 election demonstrated the extraordinarily potent power of party identity in politics today: Almost 90% of women who identified as Republicans voted for Trump, the same rate as Republican men. Gender matters, but other interests often matter more.

That doesn't mean that sexist rhetoric and actions don't affect elections—we just shouldn't assume they only affect women, and in only one way. Some men and women report sexist beliefs, such as that women only want special treatment or that women complain too much about discrimination. Men and women with those opinions were more likely to vote for Donald Trump in 2016.

READ MORE: The Authors of A Century of Votes for Women Weigh in on What Kind of Difference the "Women's Vote" Makes

Another presidential election year is upon us. Women have been voters for nearly a century, and still the question remains: What will women voters do? The experience of the past 10 decades tells us we should check our biases, and base our expectations on actual evidence instead of gender stereotypes: Women will almost certainly vote more Democratic than men, but probably not for the reasons people assume. The gender gap will be driven in part by the voting behavior of men, not just women. Differences between groups of women—especially in terms of race and education—will likely be larger than differences between women and men. Of course, in close elections, even small differences can be consequential.

What do women voters want? The most obvious answers may not always be the right ones.

Adapted from A Century of Votes for Women by Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder, published by Cambridge University Press.

Predicting How Women Will Vote Requires Looking Beyond Gender Alone