Why White Women Continue to Back the GOP

The voters have largely supported Republican candidates for years, which underscores the complicated nature of their political interests.

Donald Trump supporters look on as he speaks at a campaign rally in Pueblo, Colorado. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

People are processing last week’s election shocker in a million different ways, many of them involving large quantities of alcohol. But I swear I’ve read, heard, and been asked to explain one particular aspect of the vote at least a million times: How on God’s green earth did Hillary Clinton fail to win the support of white women?

The prevailing sense seems to be that Clinton was a candidate inexplicably, uncommonly unpalatable to this voting block. After all, women trend Democratic, right? Plus, this time around, there was a woman at the top of the Democratic ticket. And on top of that, Clinton’s opponent was a proudly vulgar, overtly misogynistic, self-proclaimed sexual predator. So what the hell happened with white women?

I’ll tell you what happened. Nothing. Not a damn thing. Yes, women generally trend Democratic. But white women—and there are still a lot of them in the U.S.—do not. They voted for Donald Trump for the same complicated set of reasons they consistently vote for other Republican presidential candidates; failing to win their support is a broad problem for Democrats, and not a specific failing of Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, far from losing white women by some noteworthy margin, Hillary pulled a slightly larger percentage of their vote (43 percent to Trump’s 53 percent) than Obama did against Romney (42 percent to 56 percent). The misogynistic Trump did worse among white women than George W. Bush did against John Kerry (55 percent to 44 percent). And even the bigger-than-Elvis rockstar Obama of 2008 lost white women to John McCain, 46 percent to 53 percent. In fact, Hillary did manage to peel away white, college-educated women from Trump—a group that actually went for Romney by 6 points in 2012.

Of course, you can slice and dice the white-women category however you like: married women, single women, lesbians, evangelicals, wiccans, thrice-married celebutante Chihuahua-breeders with breast implants and an allergy to gluten. But the overall white-woman gap in Republicans’ favor is what it is—and what it has been for several presidential cycles.

So what people are really asking isn’t as simple as, “Why didn’t white women go for Hillary?” It is the more complicated, “Why did Hillary fail to convince white women—who, in aggregate, typically vote Republican—to switch teams and back her instead?”

There are as many answers to that question as there are white chicks in America. But many of those reasons fall roughly into a couple of broad categories.

Most fundamentally, women voters are complicated. It is a cliché, because it is true. In terms of providing an electoral identity or sense of community, gender doesn’t get you very far. Sure, there are touchstone “women’s issues” that motivate many gals (including reproductive rights, paid family leave, and equal pay). But there are also plenty of women who are passionately pro-life or who don’t get as fired up about, say, child care as about taxes or immigration or national security.

Issues aside, what of Trump’s appalling statements about and mistreatment of women over the years? Even if white women vote Republican in an ordinary presidential cycle, Trump, to put it gently, was not an ordinary candidate.

This underscores another political reality: In hyperpolarized America, hard-core partisans—particularly those who have been out of power for several years—don’t switch teams over the personal shortcomings of their champion. Many Republican-base voters dug what Trump was selling in general, so they chose to overlook the icky personal behavior.

Plus, since Trump has always been a carnival barker of sorts, many other supporters simply dismiss his boorishness and self-aggrandizing babble as part of his reality-TV, alpha male swagger. Others (particularly on the right end of the spectrum) are so thrilled to see someone giving the finger to what they feel is political correctness run amok, that they accept (or even embrace) his “locker-room talk” as one piece of a grand era of anti-PC sanity he will usher in.

As for the independents and fence-sitters who ultimately went Trump: For many, the intense craving for change eclipsed the nominee’s personal grossness. He promised to “drain the swamp,” to disrupt a political system that pretty much everyone agrees is dysfunctional; everything else took a back seat. Voters reasoned that Trump isn’t really that much of a pig, or that he is a pig but it won’t affect his ability to get stuff done (might even help him!), or that, even if it does, it’s worth it. In some ways, this is the latest, most graphic iteration of a long-running debate over whether a personally reprehensible individual can be an effective leader. A lot of gals decided it was worth the gamble.

With such factors at play (along with more generic electoral trends, like how tough it is for either party to win a “third term”), Clinton couldn’t just lure white women to the blue team based on a sense of sisterhood. She needed to inspire them. And that’s not what Clinton does. Even those who love her acknowledge that she is a lackluster candidate. She is too private, too reserved, too cerebral. It’s a key reason that Obama, with his scant political experience, beat her in 2008.

Yes. Clinton has been irrationally vilified by conservatives for a quarter century. And, no doubt, some chunk of the distaste even many Democrats feel for her is inextricably tangled up in gender bias. (See Peter Beinart’s dispatch on the science of sexism if you want to get really depressed about this.)

But beyond all that, Hillary simply cannot do the whole vision/messaging/emoting/connecting thing. And that is what Americans go for in a president. (Trump’s win certainly suggests that policy and ideology—neither of which he ran on—matter far less than gut-level messaging.) Voters want someone who grabs their hearts, or at least their spleens. Hillary has always aimed for the brain. It may strike many folks as admirable, but it’s a losing strategy. (Even the super-cerebral Obama came to power on his ability to send a thrill up people’s legs.) It meant the legions that loathe her were fired up to vote against her, while many, many of her ideological and political kin responded to her with a resounding “meh.” And “meh” doesn’t drive enough people to the polls in a nation this divided.

So as the tsunami of recriminations rolls on, people shouldn’t focus too specifically on Hillary’s failure with white women. It’s not some grand mystery so much as an enduring, complex demographic trend. Some day, some Democratic candidate may find the magic formula to overcome it. But this is a problem for Democrats that goes way beyond Hillary. And party leaders will need to come to terms with the broader scope of the problem if they want to have a prayer of reversing it.