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Op-Ed: The white women who could swing the election for Trump — again

A Trump campaign rally in New Hampshire on Nov. 7, 2016
The scene before a Trump campaign rally in New Hampshire on Nov. 7, 2016, the day before the election.
(Associated Press)

One of the biggest stories of the 2016 presidential election was the support Donald Trump received from non-college-educated white women. Exit polls showed that 52% of them voted for Trump, enough to secure his victory in the electoral college even with a popular vote loss. Following the election, Trump repeatedly bragged about having “won women.” The reality was, of course, more complicated. Democratic women — including the huge majorities of women of color who voted for Hillary Clinton — felt betrayed.

New polling shows that the same trend could play out again in 2020.

Earlier this month, an in-depth poll of women voters found non-college-educated white women strongly behind Trump, even though every other subset of women voters breaks firmly for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The research was conducted by the nonpartisan civic education organization I lead, All In Together, along with Lake Research Partners and Emerson College in Boston. A random sampling of more than 1,270 registered voters nationwide was polled on Aug. 30 and Sept. 1. Nearly 670 of the women were in battleground states.

Overall, 59% of non-college-educated white women said they support Trump this year, as opposed to 38% who support Biden. This could be significant in key battleground states where these women make up a larger share of the electorate and Republicans have concentrated recent voter registration efforts.

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As our poll makes clear, women voters are not a monolith, and they certainly don’t all agree. Trump has repelled a majority of women yet maintained a core base of women who have not wavered in their support of him.

In 2016, the support for Trump among white women created huge social and cultural rifts. For Clinton voters, especially women of color, the fact that so many white women voted for Trump reinforced their worst fears about underlying racism in the country. Many just couldn’t fathom why women would seem to vote against their own interests. Op-eds carried headlines such as “White women sold out the sisterhood.”

The most remarkable thing about Trump’s racially infused law-and-order campaign is that it didn’t work.

Could our poll results be a bellwether for a 2016 repeat? It depends.

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The influence of non-college-educated white women in the last presidential election was amplified because turnout of other women voters, particularly minority and younger women, was lower in critical states than it had been in previous election years. In states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, where the margins of victory for Trump were incredibly small, non-college-educated women had an outsize impact.

This changed in the 2018 midterm election, when suburban women, independent women and women of color came together to vote in record numbers and fuel the blue wave that delivered the House of Representatives to the Democrats.

The 2020 election may very well hinge on whether the suburban women, women of color and women under 30 in key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan turn out in large enough numbers to outweigh the voting by Trump’s female base in those critical electoral states.

Of course, this underscores the many flaws of our electoral college system.

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Biden, like Clinton, enjoys wide support among a significant majority of women voters, and yet a smaller minority of women could still sway the election.

Our polling indicates that Biden should have enough support among Democratic, independent and swing-voting women to overcome Trump’s base. Women voters favor Biden by 11 points, while male voters prefer Trump by a 7-point margin, for a gender gap of 18 points.

In fact, women in our poll favor Biden over Trump on every major issue surveyed. Biden has 20-plus-point advantages when women are asked whom they trust more on race relations, the pandemic and school reopening. Even in areas where Trump has historically led, such as law and order and economic recovery, Biden has a clear advantage.

On these same issues and so many others, non-college-educated white women in our poll continue to favor Trump. For instance, law and order has been front and center since the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests. On this issue, women as a group favor Biden 55% to 41%. Yet, white non-college-educated women trust Trump to handle the issue over Biden by a 21-point margin.

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The reality of our political system is that if Biden fails to mobilize the numerical majority of Democratic, independent, suburban and minority female voters who support him, Trump could again pull off an electoral college victory on the strength of his powerful, loyal minority of women in his corner.

In 2020, women voters will once again decide the election outcome. It remains to be seen, however, if those deciders will speak for the majority.

Lauren Leader is co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a nonpartisan, nonprofit women’s civic education organization.


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