“What’s up with white women?” It was a popular question following the 2016 election, when Donald Trump won greater support among this demographic than Hillary Clinton. And it was revived following the midterm elections, as early data from exit polls showed white women once again breaking for GOP candidates. While white women voters’ support for Republicans shouldn’t be surprising (a majority of them have voted for GOP presidential candidates since 2004), progressives hoped that a variety of newsmaking events — from Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and Republican senators’ treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, to the Trump administration’s family separation policy — would get more white women to vote for Democrats in this year's elections.
This year, 49 percent of white women voters cast their votes for Democrats, compared to 73 percent of Latinas and 92 percent of black women, according to exit polls. While white women’s support for Democrats is weaker, at 37 percent of the electorate, they represent a larger segment of the electorate than all voters of color combined. These realities have spurred a variety of opinion pieces and Twitter debate, largely centered around the responsibility of individual white women to reckon with and persuade one another.
To the question of "what's up with white women?," there is a corollary for Democrats: "Does the party have room to grow with white women?”
“We better or we won’t win,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake tells Bustle. She points to a variety of internal and public pre-Election Day polling that found white women’s support for Democrats surpassing 60 percent. She attributes the discrepancy between those polls and Election Day exit poll results to a mix of responses to local candidates and “some Republicans remembering they’re Republicans.”
Some of the greatest movement for Democrats comes from white women with college degrees: Midterm exit polls from this year found that 59 percent voted for Democratic House candidates, while just two years ago, those same voters split their votes evenly between the two major parties.
But education is a limited predictor, according to Erin Cassese, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware. “It’s really the constellation of identities that determine how embedded they are in their parties,” she says. Factors like geography, race, and religiosity all complicate the picture.
“If there is any room to grow, it’s pockets in the demographics — like college-educated women — that are already trending in their direction but are located in spaces that haven’t yet shifted to Democrats,” Corrine McConnaughy, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, tells Bustle. McConnaughy points to the teacher strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky as an example of progressive policies and messaging resonating in red states.
But education level isn’t the only variable that should be examined, says Page Gardner, founder and president of Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to increasing voting participation among what she calls "rising American electorate." Her organization, together with Democracy Corps, conducted an election night survey of 1,250 registered voters, with an oversampling of voters in 15 battleground states. That research indicated that while white college-educated women were part of the story, there were also big gains for Democrats among white millennial women, white unmarried women, and white working-class women. It shows that dividing the data by college degree is just one way of looking at things, when marital status and generational affiliation are also big predictors among white women.
“Continuing to grow the margins of millennial, unmarried women and college-educated women [is] important,” Gardner tells Bustle. “If progressives can continue to cut into white working-class women, that’s key. There’s pathways to do that.” According to Gardner, that pathway requires harnessing women’s desire to place a check on President Trump, an emphasis on health care, including pre-existing conditions, and strong economic and anti-corruption policy and messaging.
For all the emphasis placed on college-educated white women, Lake considers non-college-educated white women the “real growth opportunity” for Democrats. She sees part of improved outreach to these voters as tactical.
“College-educated women are married to men who vote Democratic as well,” Lake tells Bustle. “Non-college-educated women are married to men who vote Republican. We need to give them their own information.”
So if there is room for growth among white women, where is the ceiling?
A 2016 analysis by Pew Research found that about 47 percent of white women identify as or lean Republican, and those women may be a lost cause. “There’s not a ton of hope for pulling Republican women across party lines,” Cassese tells Bustle. “If you look at Republican women’s positions on gender issues, they’re really conservative.” She points to research that finds Republican women are more likely to express hostile sexism — defined by Cassese and her co-authors as “a set of attitudes that are antagonistic toward women and stem from a belief that women want to control men” — than Democratic women or men.
If Cassese is correct that Republican women can’t be swayed, that would cap Democrats at about 53 percent support with white women. Cassese argues that the white women voters at play are independents. Already, independent white women voters have demonstrated sizable shifts toward Democrats. In 2016, 47 percent of independent women voted for Democrats. This year, that number rose to 56 percent.
But moderate independent women present yet another strategic conundrum for Democrats. “How do you gain them while keeping the progressive women on the left?” asks Dr. Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden and a scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics. “That’s always been the challenge. At some point there will be some limitations.”
Publicly, Democratic leadership is espousing an “all of the above” approach to expanding its coalition. “The party always has work to do, with every constituency,” says Amanda Brown Lierman, the Democratic National Committee’s political and organizing director. “We have to work to earn the vote and the trust of the people. It’s not unique to white women.”