Thousands gather during the Women’s March in Philadelphia on Saturday. (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)
Opinion writer

If Democrats are going to take back Congress in November, it’ll be up to female voters.

That’s one of the conclusions suggested by the latest Post/ABC News poll — but it was also the same logic that led many people, myself included, to think that Hillary Clinton was all but a lock to win the 2016 election. I want to look back at what happened then, and what we know about 2018, to see what might happen later this year.

Let’s begin with these latest results. Overall, the poll finds Democrats favored over Republicans by a 12-point margin, 51 percent to 39 percent, when voters are asked whether they plan to support a generic Democrat or Republican in this year’s House elections. This is at the higher end of the margin that recent polls have found; some have shown the Democrats’ lead as high as 14 points or as low as five  points, with the latest average around eight points. But here’s what the poll finds about women:

The Post-ABC poll finds Democrats holding a 57 percent to 31 percent advantage among female voters, double the size of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s margin in the 2016 election. Nonwhite women favor Democrats by a 53-point margin, somewhat smaller than Clinton’s 63-point advantage over Trump in 2016. But white women have moved sharply in Democrats’ direction, favoring them over Republicans by 12 points after supporting Trump by nine points in 2016 and Republican candidates by 14 points in the 2014 midterm election, according to network exit polls.

Why would women be more inclined to vote Democratic than they were in 2016? There are any number of reasons you could point to, like the administration’s unrelenting attack on reproductive rights, but most prominent among them is the #MeToo movement, which has brought so much attention to issues of harassment and sexual assault. Some well-known liberal men have been targets of serious allegations, but only the GOP is led by someone who bragged on tape about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity and has been credibly accused of various forms of sexual impropriety by about two dozen women.

Generic ballot tests, however, can tell you only so much. The real question might end up being not whether women will favor Democratic candidates but whether they’ll turn out to vote for them. There are two gender gaps at work: a gap in vote choice and a gap in turnout.

Let’s take each in turn. Back in March 2016, I wrote a piece titled “Why the 2016 election may produce the largest gender gap in history,” in which I predicted that Donald Trump’s rampaging sexism would drive female voters away from him at rates that would produce a gender gap even bigger than that of the 2012 election, which showed a gap of 20 points in exit polls, the highest recorded to that point. Lo and behold, I was right: Clinton won women by 13 points (54 to 41), while Trump won men by 11 points (52 to 41), for a total gap of 24 points.

What I got wrong, of course, was that I thought the gender gap would be enough to bring Clinton to victory. While it helped her win the popular vote by two points, it wasn’t enough to win the electoral college.

In this latest poll, the gender gap is a chasm: Women favor Democrats for Congress by 26 points (57 to 31), while men favor Republicans by four points (48 to 44), for a total gap of 30 points. But here’s where it gets tricky, because turnout in midterm elections doesn’t work the way it does in presidential elections.

You surely know that turnout is lower overall in midterms than in presidential years. You may also know that women turn out at slightly higher rates than men; for instance, in 2016, women’s turnout exceeded men’s by four points. What you probably don’t know is that the difference between men’s turnout and women’s turnout gets smaller in midterm elections.

Using data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, I’ve made this chart showing the difference between turnout for women and men in elections since 1980:


You see two things at the same time. First, the general trend line is up, which means the gap between women’s turnout and men’s turnout has been growing over time. Second, the zigzag pattern comes from the fact that the gap always shrinks in midterm elections. So, for instance, while women’s turnout was four points higher than men’s in both 2012 and 2016, in the 2014 midterms, that gap shrank to just two points.

You can tell a story in which that gap is going to increase enough in November to deliver the House and maybe the Senate to Democrats. The story says that women, outraged by the policies the Trump administration has pursued and the person of Trump himself, are motivated in unusual numbers to run for office, organize their neighbors and get to the polls. Everything we’ve seen in the last year, from the women’s marches the day after Trump’s inauguration to the unprecedented interest in running for office that women’s groups such as Emily’s List report to the women’s marches that took place this weekend, suggest that story might — just might — come true.

And it’s hard to imagine the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress doing anything to mitigate it. Try to imagine the bills they might pass or the executive actions the White House could take that would attract female voters who right now are feeling angry at the GOP. Coming up with anything?

The best they can hope for is that the anger women felt at Trump’s election will fade — or that men, particularly white men, will become unusually motivated to turn out in November. Which could happen. If they can just reset to the historical norm, it might be enough to hang on to Congress. But even that seems like a long shot.

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