Why Trump Couldn't Win as a Woman & Why it Matters by Luke Perry
No one knows for sure, but it’s hard to imagine a Donald Trump inauguration if he were a woman. Literature on gender’s impact and the presidential election is unclear. Still, national attitudes and state voting patterns suggest Hillary Clinton faced unique gender challenges that she was not able to overcome in the Electoral College.
In 2015 Gallup found that 92 percent of Americans would vote for a qualified candidate of their own party who was a woman. This is a large amount, but as remarkable is the eight percent of Americans who would disqualify their own party’s nominee solely for being a woman, even though partisanship is now stronger in America than any other country in the world.
Eight percent constitutes 19.7 million adults. If we take 57 percent of this amount, the percent of eligible Americans who voted this year, and cut it in half to account for the electorate being divided along party lines, Clinton lost an estimated 5.6 million votes within her own party solely because of her gender. Clinton lost in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by a combined 102,719 votes, less than two percent of this amount. This dynamic was reflected by the campaign as reported by Annie Karni of Politico, who wrote that “internally, staff felt that Clinton’s loss ultimately boiled down to white working class voters rejecting her because she was a woman.”
In 2015 Cornell University’s Roper Center for Public Opinion also found that 4 percent of Americans were uncomfortable with the prospect of a woman president and another 10 percent had reservations. That constitutes 9.8 million and 24.7 million adults respectively. This dynamic was reflected by President Obama, typically cautious with his words, who spoke on the campaign trail about how American society is uncomfortable with powerful women and still grappling with how this troubles us in unfair ways. Social psychologists call this “backlash effect” as explained by Terri Vescio, a Penn State Psychology professor, in Daniel Bush’s pre-election piece for PBS News Hour “The hidden sexism that could sway the election.”
These studies and observations raise the question of whether bias attitudes were actually evident in voting patterns this election. There was a strong correlation between states that voted for Trump and low levels of women elected to public office as of 2016. For instance, Trump won ten states with 60 percent of the popular vote or more. All ten of these have state legislatures with less women representatives than the national average of 24 percent. In fact, the five states in which Trump earned the largest share of votes were also the states with the lowest percentage of women in their state legislatures.
These numbers are a bit staggering, but not necessarily surprising. These states are consistently conservative and the GOP is disproportionately male; however, the correlation held with swing states as well. Trump won all swing states, but one, on par with the national average for women in state legislatures or less, including Florida, North Carolina and Iowa. Clinton won all the swing states that exceeded the national average, including Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Colorado. Virginia was the sole outlier. Only 17 percent of the state legislature is female, but Clinton won the state by five points. Remarkably, this data suggests that Clinton may have lost the state if her running mate wasn’t a man previously elected to statewide office.
This correlation was also present in the Midwest and helps explain the collapse of the "blue wall.” Clinton won Midwestern states that exceeded the national average for women in state legislatures, including Minnesota and Illinois. Trump won states on par or lower than the national average, including Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Trump also narrowly flipped Pennsylvania, whose legislature consists of just 18 percent women, well below the national average.
Interestingly, these trends were not confined to state politics either. 19 states do not currently have a U.S. House Representative who is a woman. Trump won 16 of these states, which included seven of his ten best performing states, also the most underrepresented states in regards to women in the state legislature. The Senate provides too small of sample size, though the trend held there as well.
These voting patterns illuminate how Hillary Clinton faced a major disadvantage in states Trump won, an empirically evident reluctance to elect women. Conversely, Donald Trump would likely not have won if he were a woman. His path to victory, built with states reluctant to elect women to public office, would not exist. Moreover, the difficulty one may experience trying to envision Trump running as a woman helps to illustrate the centrality of gender identity to his candidacy and masculinity to the election of this president.
To be clear, gender bias wasn’t the only factor, or even the most powerful in understanding why Clinton lost. Partisanship, individual performance, and external interference were all very significant. This shouldn’t overshadow evidence that gender bias was crucially important too.
Recognizing this reality isn’t a defeat for the Women’s Movement. Hillary Clinton’s nomination was a historic achievement. Nor does this excuse Clinton’s shortcomings or diminish Trump’s successes in the general election. This bias illuminates how one helpful step forward is for more Americans to recognize there is no compelling reason for anyone to disqualify or diminish a presidential candidacy due to gender.
Luke Perry, PhD, Chair and Associate Professor of Government and Politics at Utica College