Politics

What the Exit Polls Are Missing About White Women

They’re becoming less reliably Republican, for one thing.

Voters cast ballots at a polling station in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Voters cast ballots at a polling station in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since Donald Trump won 53 percent of white women’s votes in the 2016 election, a predictable back-and-forth plays out in progressive circles when exit polls trickle in from right-leaning states and districts. Analysts and activists tweet out the numbers, remarking that white women supported the Republican candidate over the Democratic one. Progressive white women compose apologetic, self-flagellating tweets, beseech one another to “do better,” and promise to get their fellow white women “in line.” Another election rolls around, and it happens again.

This time, the numbers came from CNN’s midterm election exit polls for high-profile races in Florida, Texas, and Georgia. While exit poll data is notoriously unreliable, CNN’s numbers showed that white women supported the white Republicans over the Democrats in all three of these races. They went 51 percent for Rep. Ron DeSantis over black Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for the Florida governorship. They went 59 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz over Beto O’Rourke in the Senate race in Texas. And white women in Georgia backed Brian Kemp over Stacey Abrams, who would have been the country’s first black female governor, with a whopping 75 percent of their vote—the highest of any demographic group tracked by CNN.

All three of these races were extremely close. (Depending on how absentee ballots turn out in Georgia, Abrams and Kemp might still be headed for a runoff.) If white women had backed the Democratic candidates instead, the South would be welcoming two black governors and sending a sexy alt-rocker to the Senate. But it should come as no surprise when white women in reddish states and districts vote Republican. In their efforts to name a plague in American society that’s gone unnoticed by white people for far too long—white women trading gender solidarity for racial power—progressives are eliding important nuances that political organizers can’t afford to ignore.

When Trump won 53 percent of white women in 2016, it was read as stark evidence that white women identify more with their race—and the subjugation of other races—than their gender, and with good reason: The election couldn’t have presented a clearer choice between a laughably unqualified, unrepentantly racist, alleged repeat sexual abuser and … a woman. The 2018 races in Florida, Texas, and Georgia didn’t offer such an obviously gendered decision. A woman only ran in one of them, and none of the three Republican men have been accused of multiple sexual assaults, as Trump has. There are also key differences between the Florida, Texas, and Georgia races. DeSantis eagerly courted white nationalists on his way to the governor’s office and embraced the worst parts of Trumpism throughout his campaign against the charismatic Gillum. Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, purged more than 10 percent of the state’s voter rolls over the past two years and tried to tie Abrams to the New Black Panther Party with a tweeted photo of black-clad black men wielding assault rifles and an Abrams lawn sign. Cruz, meanwhile, is plenty racist, but no more so than any other Republican in national office, though who knows how he might have attacked a nonwhite opponent.

It’s not clear that white women who voted for Cruz or DeSantis were choosing race over gender, because plenty of women already see the gendered issues in play (say, abortion rights) through a conservative lens. A woman who thinks abortion victimizes mothers (I’m not saying that’s right, I’m just saying it happens!) might have been choosing race and gender when she voted for one of the white men on the ballot. In that case, progressives shouldn’t call out white women for abandoning solidarity with women of color: They should call them out for being Republicans.

In Georgia, where the GOP claims slightly less of the population than the Democratic Party, about 59 percent of white people identify as Republicans. These white Republicans—and quite a few white people who don’t identify as Republicans—love Trump. According to exit polls, about 7 in 10 white women voted for both Trump in 2016 and current Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014. When Trump endorsed Kemp in the Republican gubernatorial primary earlier this year, the polling numbers of his closest competitor immediately fell. To win the Georgia election, one political scientist opined before Election Day, Abrams would have had to “do better with white female voters than any other Democrat has in the past.” Per exit polls, 97 percent of Democratic women voted for Abrams, while 97 percent of Republican women said they voted for Kemp. Independents of both genders swung Abrams’ way by a total margin of 10 percentage points, but it wasn’t enough to put her over the top.

Deeper in the crosstabs, a more specific picture of the white female Kemp supporter emerges. Among white women with college degrees, 57 percent went for Kemp, 6 percentage points less than went for Trump in 2016. (White college-educated men were 60 percent for Kemp, 76 percent for Trump.) Among non-college-educated white women, 83 percent voted Kemp—2 percentage points more than their male counterparts. Two years earlier, only 78 percent of this white lady demographic voted for Trump, suggesting that the racist fearmongering that has animated both Trump’s tenure and Kemp’s campaign may have worked better on non-college-educated white women than on their college-educated counterparts.

Another data point to consider here: Abrams performed 9 percentage points better—43 percent compared to 34 percent—among college-educated white women than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. This isn’t to say that white college-educated women aren’t motivated by racism, or that they didn’t hate the idea of a single black woman with college debt winning the governor’s seat over a man who reminds them of their husbands and brothers and sons. Many are, and many did. But when Democrats look for lessons to glean from the Abrams campaign, “white women in the South are too irredeemably racist to vote for Democrats” shouldn’t be one of them. Certain groups of white women are more likely to resist appeals to racial animus—and to be motivated by a strong progressive message like Abrams’—than others. Targeted outreach to those communities could help the next Stacey Abrams—or Abrams herself, when she runs again—especially since it’s going to take a lot longer than a couple of election cycles for all the progressive white women on Twitter to conduct anti-racism trainings for the right-leaning whites in their lives.

Religion is another important factor in white women’s support for Trump and his cohort. White born-again and evangelical Christians went 88 percent for Kemp on Tuesday—5 percentage points less than went for Trump in 2016, but still a significant slice of the electorate. There has been a more-or-less steady increase in white evangelicals’ affiliation with GOP since the 1990s; now, nearly 80 percent say they’re Republican or lean Republican. White women in evangelical circles are concerned about abortion and embedded in communities that prize patriarchal authority and adherence to gender norms. In their worlds, associating with feminist movements and causes does not confer benefits. When their votes for Trump outpaced non-evangelical Trump support by a margin of about 30 percentage points, they weren’t “selling out the sisterhood,” as some mused at the time, so much as they were revealing that there was no such sisterhood to begin with.

That point was driven home by writer Mikki Kendall on Wednesday. “The reason the focus is on white women is because they demand sisterhood and solidarity and stab WOC and their communities in the back. Repeatedly,” she tweeted. A huge amount of visible Trump-era organizing has sought to unite women by their gender alone. But the potential power of such a movement—half the country’s population!—also explains why American women will never move en masse to the Democratic Party, no matter how many entreaties progressives make to the self-interests of white women who don’t want to be paid crap wages, get denied health insurance because of previous C-sections, or be blamed for their own rapes. Social clubs, churches, and entire neighborhoods have been built around loyalty to conservative ideals. Being a woman in the age of Trump is not enough of a pain to get many members of these social structures to full-on abandon their communities in favor of, say, the intersectional feminism of the Women’s March.

The good news is that some combination of progressive organizing and the Republican Party’s strengthening association with white nationalists and woman-abusers seems to be getting through to the white women who are still persuadable. Since 2014, and even more so since 2016, there’s been an increase in white women voting for Democrats. For the first time in a long time, on Tuesday, they voted equally for each party. And since the mid-2000s, college-educated white women have increasingly moved left: Sixty percent currently identify as Democratic or Democratic-leaning, compared to around 48 percent in 2004.

In some ways, it doesn’t make sense to think of “women” as a voting bloc, since they’re members of every geographic community and racial, ethnic, religious, and educational sub-demographic. When one party is as extreme in its rhetoric and policies on race and gender as the GOP is, women vote less as one bloc and more as two highly polarized ones. Yes, Trump’s election has been followed by enormous women-led protests, a surge of new female candidates, and a leftward political shift among white women as a whole. But today’s GOP has captivated certain segments of women as much as it’s alienated others. A radical Republican Party won’t unite women. It will divide them, just like it divides everyone else.