Shortly after the 2016 election, Tina Fey took to task the white women who had helped elect Donald Trump, providing him with 52 percent of their support. Fey particularly focused her remarks on college-educated white women, 44 percent of whom voted for Trump, chastising them for wanting to “go back to watching HGTV” and forget about the election. “You can’t look away,” Fey implored. “Because it doesn’t affect you this minute, but it’s going to affect you eventually.”
New evidence suggests many of these women may now agree with Fey. In the wake of sexual-assault allegations against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a Morning Consult/Politico poll found that President Trump’s net support among Republican women had dropped by 19 points.
Those numbers, while perhaps a momentary reaction to gruesome news, fit within a larger pattern that has emerged over the past year: Women are moving to the Democratic Party en masse. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released on September 26 counted a 28-point advantage for the Democrats among all women. Among married, white, college-educated women, a group long tied to the GOP, the Republicans now lead by only five points.
If those numbers hold, they may spell disaster for Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. Even more significant, they may signal that a monumental historical shift in partisan alignment is underway.
For more than 40 years, college-educated white women have formed a substantive bloc for the GOP, the key constituency in establishing the party’s hold on suburbs and exurbs across the country. Indeed, the modern conservative movement was built, in part, by the very type of women who may now be fleeing the Republican Party.
That movement owed much to Phyllis Schlafly, the Harvard-graduate lawyer who marshaled thousands of women against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s. A devout Catholic, Schlafly appealed to other religious women’s fears that the ERA would upend traditional gender roles and legalize the worst abominations, including gay marriage. She also tapped into a cultural sentiment among a certain set of white college-educated women that their class status and way of life was under attack—a sort of counterresponse to the argument feminists were making to a different set of women, who felt that their education was being wasted as homemakers.
Republicans built from Schlafly’s premise, assuring college-educated women in the 1980s that their economic program was best for their family. Ronald Reagan backed his pledge to shrink the federal government, slash business regulations, and cut taxes with the promise that doing so would put more money in Americans’ hands. Reagan boasted in 1984 that “millions of young families” had been “set free from unfair tax increases and crushing inflation” during his presidency.
White women thrilled to his message. It’s true that Reagan suffered from the “gender gap” in both of his presidential races, but that disparity depended on his poor support among women of color. He won a majority of white women in 1980 and again in 1984. The latter victory included nabbing 53 percent of white college-educated women.
The popularity of Reagan’s economic agenda among white college-educated women was coupled with their approval of his aggressive approach to the Soviet Union and his “tough on crime” stance. Convinced that Democrats were unsympathetic to their concerns, white suburban women viewed Reagan’s increase in military spending, his push for a nuclear-missile buildup, and his War on Drugs as essential to their family’s safety.
The belief that Republicans provided the strongest national security and would protect their family against Islamic terrorism bound white women more closely to the GOP after the events of 9/11. George W. Bush justified the war in Iraq, warrantless wiretapping, and enhanced interrogation as necessary for keeping Americans safe. White women agreed: Fifty-five percent voted for Bush’s reelection in 2004.
Since the 1970s, Republican activists and leaders have successfully convinced white women that theirs was the party of economic security and national safety. Yet the politics of safety and security may be what is now driving white women to the Democratic Party.
Some traditionally Republican women may be turned off by the party’s steadfast support for the National Rifle Association and its unwillingness to pursue gun reform, arguably a threat to their children’s lives. Others may feel that the party dismisses their concerns when it comes to the most personal and intimate matters of their bodily integrity.
On that latter point, the Kavanuagh nomination process obviously isn’t helping. Meanwhile, the Democrats have made zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault the party standard.
That wasn’t always the case. Just think of Senator Joe Biden’s poor handling of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991, or Democrats’ regular dismissal of credible sexual-assault allegations against President Bill Clinton. But that record has now been improved by the party’s vigorous rebuke and removal of recent aggressors, such as Senator Al Franken and Representative John Conyers.
For decades, many women may have seen little difference between the two parties when it came to sexual misconduct, allowing them to prioritize other concerns. Now there’s a bright line.
On Thursday, during a break in Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, a woman called out to Senator Lindsey Graham that she had been raped in the past. “I’m so sorry,” Graham responded as he ducked into an elevator. “You needed to tell the cops.”
Such casual indifference to women’s mistreatment is visible not only in the Republicans’ endorsement of Kavanaugh, but also in the party’s general dismissal of the #MeToo movement and the president’s obvious sympathy for accused men over accusing women.
Since Ford has come forward with her allegations against Kavanaugh, Republicans in Washington have questioned her story because she didn’t speak out sooner. But if the Republican message to women is that they need to speak up, they might not like what they have to say this November.