We’ve all witnessed the major plots of 2016 develop, many still ongoing: the Hillary Clinton email scandal, socialist Bernie Sanders’ populist surge, and the growing chasm in the GOP personified by the enduring strength of Donald Trump.
But there is another subplot, perhaps the most important of the cycle, that has had presidential implications since 1992. Where does the female vote go next year?
Hillary Clinton has made clear her base of support will largely consist of women. Since 1992, Democrats have won the female vote in every presidential election. Among men, however, Democrats have lost the male vote four times out of six. The two times Democrats won the male vote, 1992 (3 percent) and 2008 (1 percent), their margins have been extremely narrow. Not so among women. In the last two presidential elections, Democrats won the female vote by 13 percent and 11 percent.
Of course, where Democratic support comes from among women is important. Democrats don’t win every female constituency, just like Republicans don’t win every male constituency. Consider in 2008 Republicans won the married, white women vote by seven percent and expanded it to 14 percent in 2012. Democrats, by contrast, grew their margins among single women in both elections. Obviously these voters have different priorities, and the Clinton campaign knows this.
Married, white female voters tend to value security and economic opportunity. They are more likely to be pro-life–it’s hard to imagine having an abortion if you have a child–and they tend to live in more exurban, rural areas of the country. By contrast, Clinton’s diverse base of women is single, minority-majority, pro-choice, and lives in suburban and urban areas. Maintaining a large edge with these voters is crucial for the Clinton camp. Uncertainty with the turnout levels of minorities post-Obama has made this a certainty.
Recent polls highlight Clinton’s struggle even with elements of her own base. In 2012 college-educated women favored Obama by double-digits. Among college educated white women Romney squeaked out a 52 percent margin.
One of Clinton’s claims to fame is her ability to improve among white women, college-educated or not. However, recent polls do not support this idea. The NBC/WSJ survey conducted June 14-18 found an interesting distinction between white women who are college-educated and those who are not. Clinton had a 13 point net-positive rating among white women who have attended college (51 percent positive and 38 percent negative) but an eight point net-negative rating among white women who haven’t (47 percent negative, 39 percent positive). Consistent with these findings, suburban women had a 51-36 percent favorable rating of the former First Lady.
A recent July Quinnipiac survey of Iowa, Virginia, and Colorado backed up NBC’s findings. Clinton trailed Bush, Walker, and Rubio in all three states and was underwater with all women. She still managed to garner edges with the voting bloc. The problem is that her standing with male voters is atrocious. Clinton has single-digit leads with women, but her Republican contenders have double-digit edges among men.
Clinton’s campaign is aware of this problem. In the NBC/WSJ survey, Clinton had an overall 44-43 percent favorable spread with white women. Among white men she had a horrid 31 percent favorable rating compared to 53 unfavorable rating. This is a whopping 23 percent gender gap. Admittedly, the overall gender gap in 2012 was just as wide, but another advantage the Clinton camp touts is their ability to bring blue-collar workers, particularly men, back into the Democratic fold.
It is getting harder and harder to see how she will accomplish such a task, since recent events have not been kind to her. The Secretary of State email scandal has forced her to seek refuge among the progressive wing of her party, offering policies far to the left of many male voters. The Planned Parenthood scandal has forced her to come out in favor of the organization, emphasizing her pro-choice credentials while a solid majority of white men are pro-life.
Worse, the 2014 midterms showed both socially moderate and conservative men are willing to vote for a male Republican who does not come out full-force on social issues. For example, Cory Gardner in Colorado’s US Senate race walked back support for former personhood amendments. It did not weaken his standing among pro-life men, and he largely won the election on the strength of his massive margins with men.
Unlike Democrats, who seem unaware of their problems with men (they performed stronger among every female racial group than racial male groups), particularly white men, Republicans know they have a problem with women. It is why the party is debating what to do with Planned Parenthood, how hard to fight on the issue, and even how to fight. It’s why Republicans cheered Fiorina’s strong debate performance last week as it will help elevate her stature in the presidential nomination contest.
The gender gap is but one of many plots at play in 2016 but it could be the most important.