The California Gender Gap Goes National

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

Thirty seven years ago, in 1983, I coauthored one of the first studies of the Republican Party’s problem with women voters, what was then called the “gender gap.”  This first showed up in the 1980 election, and was very apparent in the 1982 election.  

In that year, working women under the age of 45 voted 61 percent for the Democratic candidate for governor, although he lost statewide.  “Political division based on gender is not new, but it has manifested itself in an entirely unexpected manner,” we wrote at the time. “Working women voted Democratic invariable more than non-working women.” It was obvious that this would be a growing problem since more women were entering the work force.

Much water has flowed under the political bridge since 1983.  Back then California Republicans held the governorship, one U.S. Senate seat, and healthy numbers in the legislature and in Congress.  No more, the California Republican Party has essentially ceased to be an effective political party, having suffered historical losses in 2018 with likely more to come in 2020, and a registration decline that makes it California’s third party well behind No Party Preference.  Just since the 2018 election two GOP Assembly members have left the party.

The question then was whether the California problem would begin to affect the Republican Party nationally.  The two central reasons for the California Republican demise were manifestly clear; alienation of the growing Latino vote by GOP Gov. Pete Wilson with Proposition 187, and the growing electoral power of women, especially white women in the wealthy suburbs.   But nationally, the Republicans were expanding and taking over formerly Democratic states.

However, the alienation of Latino voters, which helped destroy California Republicans beginning in the 1990s, certainly has metastasized to other states.  Heavily Latino southwestern states like Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico were toss-up states two decades ago, but are now solidly Democratic. But even as late as 2016, despite the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the women’s vote was not as overwhelming Democratic in the battleground states it has been in California.

According to an analysis in The Economist magazine, in 2016, 53 percent of white women, and 62 percent of white women without college degrees, voted for Donald Trump.  This fact alone allowed his narrow victory in enough battleground states to win the presidency.

The US Census Bureau found that turnout of white voters was up in 2016 over 2012, while some minority voter turnout was down.  Statisticians have suggested that a lower African American turnout cost Clinton states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

But in 2018 turnout was up for all racial and ethnic groups.  Democrats did very well in the 2018 midterm elections, and in the handful of 2019 elections, and one major factor seems to have been a higher Democratic vote among women across the board.

President Trump has a firewall in rural America; there was no decline in the rural vote for Republicans in 2018 or 2019.  But that is not true in the suburbs; almost all the gains Democrats made in Congress in 2018 came in suburban areas. The GOP suburban vote declined in 2018 from prior years, but the most noticeable decline was among women voters, especially white women.

For all the political bluster over the next 11 months, the 2020 election will decided in a handful of states that were closely contested in 2016, with the four most important being Florida, Pennsylvania Michigan and Wisconsin, each of which Trump won narrowly.  All four states have a largely white population — Florida 71 percent; Pennsylvania, 78 percent; Michigan 76 percent; Wisconsin 82 percent (By contrast California is only 39 percent white, New York is 57 percent).

So white voters will decide whether Trump is re-elected.  This may account for Trump intensely courting of his white voter base.  But 2019 polling suggests white women voters are a real problem for him.

A late 2019 study in Roll Call noted that: “Polling data on white college educated voters and white women has been trending negative for the Trump campaign for months — with no signs of turning positive. Sixty-one percent of white women disapprove of the president’s job performance; 35 percent approve, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Oct. 23. Among all whites with a college degree, the president also is underwater, with 58 percent saying they disapprove of his performance against 39 percent that approve.”  

Looking more closely at the figures, Democrats improved their showing among women votes by five percent in 2018 over 2016, although they still lost white non-college educated women, who are a large part of the Trump base.  But while Trump got 61 percent of this cohort in 2016, GOP candidates only received 56 percent in 2018.

All this data suggest that what we first saw in California nearly four decades ago, a drop in GOP support among women, especially white women, now may well have finally reached the rest of the country.  There is no doubt that the gender gap that was in its infancy in California in 1983 is alive and well, and spreading into the battleground states.  

If Trump does no better with suburban voters than GOP candidates did in 2018, he will lose.  But these are upper income voters, many with private health plans that they really like. The candidacy of an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders would probably push them back in the Republican direction.  It will be interesting to see if the Democrats can nominate a candidate who can talk to these suburban women voters the way their candidates did in 2018; they are the key to 2020.

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