Analysis

How Women Failed to Save America From Donald Trump

The voting patterns of white women show that Hillary’s defeat could not simply be laid at the feet of men.

Women wearing "Make America Great Again" attend an election night party for Donald Trump at the Hilton Midtown hotel in New York, November 8, 2016.
Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

Hillary Clinton was supposed to be able to count on female voters. 

Even if she wasn’t able to sweep African-Americans, Latinos and millennials at the polls as Barack Obama had, women were expected to flock to her side. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, a map circulated on social media showed Hillary winning by a landslide if the electorate was all female.

The theory made sense. Donald Trump, after all, came off as a misogynistic caveman whose replusion of women seemed to be universal, crossing ethnic and party lines. There was so much to be disgusted by: from the twelve women charging him with some form of harassment or sexual assault, to evidence that he was a serial philanderer who had cheated on all three of his wives, to crude remarks calling women “dogs,” “pigs” and “slobs,” to his now-infamous bragging that his “star status” earned him to the right to impose Tic-Tac flavored kisses on unsuspecting women and grab their genitals at will. 

What’s more, women were expected to turn out in record numbers to vote for Hillary so they could make history and help elect the first female president, sending a message to their daughters and granddaughters – and themselves – that the “highest and hardest” glass ceiling had been shattered and the sky was now the limit for women. 

But something clearly went terribly wrong. Women failed Hillary Clinton: more specifically, white women. Their voting patterns, as borne out in CNN exit polls, showed that blame for Hillary’s defeat could not simply be laid at the feet of men. 

While a mere 4 percent of black women and 26 percent of Latina women voted for Trump, a majority of white women – 53 percent – gave the Republican candidate their vote. Only 43 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. White women without a college education were even more likely to vote against Clinton. They went for Trump by 66 percent, with only 34 percent supporting Clinton. 

The numbers did not match the results of polls taken before the election. Like so many other elements of the 2016 race, the betrayal of Hillary Clinton by white women came as a surprise. It turned out that there were many women who did not tell pollsters they would vote for Trump but ended up doing so in the voting booth. 

Why? The most simplistic and popular explanation in the aftermath of the election is good old-fashioned racism: White women who supported Trump’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic messages chose their race over their gender, a theory that triggered no small amount of social media backlash. 

Another likely reason is the successful pressure exerted on white female voters by their husbands, fathers and other white male family members, who voted for Trump in overwhelming numbers. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake warned in a Slate article that "toward the end of presidential elections, men typically start leaning on their wives to vote the way that they do" and that based on her focus groups, in 2016, "the pressure started earlier than usual." Even if these women were deeply turned off by Trump’s words and behavior, they may have been persuaded from across the dinner table, night after night, that “Crooked Hillary” was worse.

But there’s another factor that’s more complex and difficult to measure: fear. In Israel, we are all too familiar with women who don’t vote for women leaders or men they perceive as weak, even when they agree with them on the issues. Instead, often at the last moment, they instinctively mark their ballot for the most macho military man possible, distasteful as he may be in numerous other respects, in hopes that he can best protect them from the frightening threats around them. 

Over the course of his campaign, Trump painted a frightening landscape of race riots and terror attacks and promised to be the country’s savior, restoring “law and order” and “crushing ISIS.” The sunny vision of hope and harmony painted by Hillary Clinton at her convention was far more palatable – but didn’t address fear or insecurity. Fear does not discriminate on the basis of gender and even strong women have been socialized to believe that they can only truly feel safe and protected by a powerful male figure. Trump pressed heavily on this theme, saying Clinton was “weak” with “no stamina” and asking audiences derisively at his rallies whether they could picture her as commander in chief. 

Beyond the women who voted for Trump there were the women who didn’t, but refused to vote for Clinton, helping Trump claim victory in some swing states. On the right, there were women like Bethany Shondark Mandel, a prominent Jewish conservative voice in the “Never Trump” camp, who proudly posted Facebook photos of herself voting for third party candidate Evan McMullin on Election Day.

On the left, there were progressive women who voted for a third-party candidate despite entreaties by their candidate of choice, Bernie Sanders, to support Hillary. The most prominent example: Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon declared she “refused to vote with her vagina,” chose a third-party candidate and was the target of blame and backlash when the election results came in.  

Finally, there were women who simply did not like Hillary Clinton and didn't believe in what she stood for. In today’s highly tribal and partisan political environment, even those committed to female empowerment and excited by the idea of a female head of state won’t support a woman who doesn’t represent them or who they believe is untrustworthy or corrupt. 

No amount of feminism could convince some women to vote for a President Sarah Palin in the United States or a Prime Minister Miri Regev in Israel. 

And so it seems no matter how horrific Donald Trump’s misogyny, no amount of his bad behavior was sufficient to convince a substantial enough number of women to help send Hillary Clinton to the White House.