The Marriage Plot

Democrats will need white women to resist their husbands’ appeals for Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and US First Lady Michelle Obama are seen during a presidential campaign event in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA on October 27, 2016.
Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama campaigned together for the first time Thursday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina—According to the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, toward the end of presidential elections, men typically start leaning on their wives to vote the way that they do. Based on focus groups, Lake says that this year, in a campaign that’s become an epochal battle of the sexes, the pressure started earlier than usual. In many cases, she told me, this pressure works: “Married couples often converge on their vote.” In some local elections—for example, those for school board—married women’s choices drive men’s votes, but at the presidential level, Lake says that men’s opinions typically prevail. In a year when, as Alex Wagner recently reported in the Atlantic, polls have shown a 25 point chasm between the preferences of married men and married women, Hillary Clinton needs at least some wives to resist their husbands’ political appeals on behalf of Donald Trump.

Thus, says Lake, Democrats are making a deliberate effort to communicate to married white women that they should feel confident making their own political decisions. “One thing that’s been launched this year is a number of efforts to get women to make up their own minds, and reinforce you have your own way of doing things, you take a 360 degree view of candidates, trust your gut,” she says. That message, says Lake, has been a subtext of the speeches that Michelle Obama has delivered on behalf of Clinton in this campaign: “One of the biggest ways to motivate women to turn out and to get their own information is to tell them to focus on [their] children and the next generation.”

That’s just what the first lady did on Thursday, when she joined Clinton for a stadium rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “[L]et me tell you, this is not about Republicans versus Democrats,” said Obama, as Clinton sat behind her. “None of that matters this time around. No, no, no. This election is about something much bigger. It’s about who will shape our children and the country we leave for them, not just for the next four or eight years but for the rest of their lives.”

Thursday’s rally, which drew more than 10,000 people, was the first time that Obama and Clinton have campaigned together, and the event had a curious mix of radicalism and traditionalism. These were two women whose initial fame came from their marriages, making a political appeal grounded in the shared experience of motherhood. But these were also two women who were once bitter political foes on either side of a male political supernova, now joined together without him and speaking to a largely female audience. The warmup speakers were also women: former Sen. Kay Hagan and Senate candidate Deborah Ross. There was a deliberate sense that women, banded together, can save the world from Donald Trump, whose name Obama once again didn’t deign to mention. For a moment, men seemed politically superfluous.

It was striking that Clinton introduced Obama instead of vice-versa, an act of subtle self-effacement that would be inconceivable for Trump. Clinton spoke about how, debating her bullying opponent, Obama’s words sustained her: “[T]here were times during those three debates, the loop running in my head was what Michelle said at the convention, right? ‘When they go low, we go high.’ ” For her part, Obama spoke of Clinton with what sounded like love: “Do not let yourself get tired or frustrated or discouraged by the negativity of this election as you are out there working your hearts out for my girl.” If this demonstration of sisterhood was a political performance, it was nonetheless a powerful one, particularly in contrast to the testosterone-drunk spectacle of the Trump campaign.

The evening before the Clinton-Obama event, I went to an outdoor Trump rally in the small eastern town of Kinston. So as not to be in the press pen separated from the crowd, I decided to attend as an ordinary person. This might have been a mistake; like many who waited in line for hours, I didn’t get in and ended up watching with some other disappointed rallygoers from on top of a semi just outside the fence. To some of the Trump supporters I met, the overflow crowds were evidence that the people, writ large, are with Trump.

As we waited in the endlessly snaking line, a 47-year-old physical therapist named Keith, accompanied by his wife, told me that he had no doubt that Trump would win the majority of votes. “I’m looking at this in the middle of nowhere,” he said, gesturing at all the people around us. “I drove an hour and a half. My buddy got here at 3 in the afternoon and waited for two hours.” Someone had told him that the largest Hillary Clinton rally is smaller than the smallest Mike Pence rally. That’s not true, but he believed it. To him, this crowd—overwhelmingly white and more than half male—represented America.

The crowd at the Clinton-Obama rally represents a different America, one that for much of America’s history didn’t have political representation at all. To be sure, there were white men there, just as there were women at the Trump rally, some wearing “Adorable Deplorable” T-shirts. But it was multiracial and more than half female. It was a microcosm of the coalition Clinton is depending on.

When it was over, I followed Jesse Jackson and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus to a campaign office in Greensboro, where they were giving volunteers a pep talk. Given that polls show that a Trump victory is still possible, I asked Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman if she was scared. She spoke of the huge crowd at the rally we’d just attended. “This was a Thursday afternoon,” she said. “People are excited. And you looked around, the diversity of that coliseum, and you said this is America. These people represent what America is.”

Married white women straddle the America on view at Trump’s rally and the one on display at Clinton’s. The election may depend on where they decide their interests ultimately lie. “[D]ignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot in this election,” Clinton said on Thursday. If enough women agree, some of Trump’s acolytes might find they’ve lost power over their wives as well as their country.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.