The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White women backed Glenn Youngkin for Virginia governor. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise, experts say.

Supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin gather for an election night party in Chantilly, Va., on Nov. 2, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Laurel Wise has always considered herself a political independent, though she usually backed Democratic candidates. But this year, with Glenn Youngkin on the ballot, she was ready to try something new.

“It was an end-of-the-campaign switch that I made,” Wise said. “I never thought I’d vote for Youngkin, and then really liked what he started saying about the economy and education, and getting rid of mandates.”

The 48-year-old from Henrico County is part of a group of White women who voted for Biden in 2020 but chose to cast a ballot for Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race, helping propel the first-time candidate to victory over former governor Terry McAuliffe.

In the final weeks of the race, Youngkin won White women by solidifying his image as a relatable suburban dad, anchoring his platform on education issues and walking a fine line in his connection to former president Donald Trump.

Those final weeks of the race proved fruitful for Youngkin in welcoming back both White women who had abandoned the party during the Trump era and those who no longer related with the Democratic Party, especially in rural parts of the state. The demographic swung 14 points back toward the GOP after splitting almost even between Biden and Trump in 2020, according to The Post’s early exit polling.

Because White women make up one of the largest groups in the Virginia electorate, political experts and strategists often pay close attention to their voting patterns. And although the demographic almost always backs Republican candidates, White women remain deeply divided among education, location and religious lines — making them what some analysts consider the largest swing vote up for grabs in increasingly contentious elections.

“Women voters are up for grabs. They’re the one swing voter in American politics,” said Jane Junn, a professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Southern California. “Especially White women. Sometimes they vote Democratic, most of the time they vote Republican, but it depends.”

The defeat this year in Virginia stung for Democrats who thought that surely — with national concerns over abortion access and Trump’s looming shadow — they would have made lasting strides with White women. But the swing back toward the GOP is concerning for Democrats who saw part of their success in 2018 and 2020 as a result of increasing margins among women, and who hope to hold on to their majority in Congress in the 2022 midterms.

“We canvassed in 2018, and there was so much excitement, and we turned the state blue, and it was wonderful,” said Dana Batch, a 57-year-old White Democrat from Ashburn. “This time, it was a different feel. And there wasn’t that same kind of enthusiasm.”

Returning to the party

In politics, it’s understood that there’s a “gender gap” in which women vote in favor of Democratic candidates over their male counterparts. But that gap, political scientists say, is driven by women of color.

White women have voted for Republican presidential candidates in every election except two since 1952 — Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton for his second term in 1996, Junn said. Yet after each election, groups seem to be surprised by the results because of the expected gender gap.

“Why have we been unable to see the elephant in the room?” she said. “The elephant in the room is a Republican voter. And she’s White and female.”

Women in Virginia favored McAuliffe overall, but at 53 percent a significant dip from the 61 percent who voted for Biden in 2020, according to early exit polls. Black women voted for McAuliffe at 86 percent and Latino women at 75 percent, while 43 percent of their White counterparts supported the former governor.

White women split almost evenly between Biden and Trump in 2020. For some in the blue suburbs of Virginia, supporting Republican candidates became untenable with Trump in office. But without Trump on — or near — the ticket, some White women were ready to return to the party.

“With a candidate who wasn’t nearly as Trumpian at the top of the ballot, it made some Republicans more comfortable returning,” said Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Ben Tribbett, a Democratic consultant, said one strategy he saw from the Youngkin campaign was abundant use of yard signs as a way to signal — especially to White families in the suburbs — that their neighbors and others in their communities were voting Republican.

“After Trump, these moderates needed to see it was okay to vote Republican again,” Tribbett said. “They needed to know it was okay to come home.”

Some experts noted that McAuliffe spent much of his campaign trying to tie Youngkin to Trump rather than stressing his own platform points and experience, an unsuccessful tactic as Youngkin kept Trump at arm’s distance. And Democrats acknowledged that relying on tying Republican candidates to Trump would not be successful in 2022.

Wise, the voter from Henrico, said she never would have considered supporting Trump, but Youngkin was far enough from the former president for her to comfortably cast her ballot for him. If Youngkin and Trump had run closer together, it probably would have changed her stance, she said.

“Youngkin distanced himself from Trump. That was a very clear delineation that he very smartly made and I, whether or not I was naive, I bought it,” Wise said. “I think that there’s a new Republican Party that’s going to come around.”

Educational divides

Along with shrinking McAuliffe’s margins in cities, suburbs and exurbs that Biden had carried last year, Youngkin also massively turned out voters in rural parts of the state and overwhelmingly attracted White women without college degrees.

The educational divide among White women was one of the most striking takeaways of the Virginia race for political analysts, who noted that it matches a larger trend of division between those with college degrees and those without.

Youngkin’s victory among White women was fueled by 74 percent of those without college degrees who voted for him vs. 61 percent of White women with college degrees who voted for McAuliffe.

“Mobilization in rural communities in [Virginia] was very high, which could help explain the strong showing for Youngkin among White women without a college degree,” Erin Cassese, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware, said in an email. “These women seem to be shifting to the Republican Party while White, college educated women are driving a suburban shift toward the Democratic Party.”

Julie Bowling, who lives in Amherst County, said she used to think of herself as a Democrat, supporting climate issues and social services, but this year felt like she’d started losing touch with the party.

Living in a region of Virginia she called the Bible Belt, the 55-year-old said Youngkin’s education stance — especially on transgender bathrooms — pushed her to vote Republican.

“The Democrats are swinging so far out of what I believe,” Bowling said.

After Youngkin won, #WhiteWomen began trending on Twitter as hundreds took to social media to post about how the demographic fueled the Republican victory, in turns thanking and deriding White women for their votes. There was an outpouring of criticism from Democrats about Youngkin’s campaign declarations about critical race theory — an academic approach to racial history that’s not actually part of the Virginia K-12 curriculum — to win the demographic.

Commonly referred to as CRT, critical race theory is an intellectual movement that originated in academia as way to examine how American policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. It’s become one of the hottest and most divisive discussion points in American politics, Youngkin routinely got his biggest applause at rallies when he promised to ban the curriculum.

Youngkin’s education campaign harnessed momentum not only on CRT but also on a year of frustration for parents with children, who had to manage school closures, mask mandates and other pandemic-related obstacles for their children’s education.

About a quarter of voters named education as the top issue for how they voted, and among them, 53 percent voted for Youngkin, according to The Post’s exit poll. White women followed the same trend, with about 24 percent identifying education as their top issue.

Jatia Wrighten, an assistant political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Youngkin successfully weaponized education as a dog whistle, and she likened his use of critical race theory to the historical “Southern strategy'' of employing White people’s racial fears in political campaigns.

“He activated White women to vote in a very specific way that they feel like is protecting their children,” Wrighten said. “White women felt like this was a way to protect their children from the unknown of critical race theory.”

She said there’s been a shift in recent years to think of White women as more liberal than they are. Although hundreds of thousands of pink hat-wearing women descended on Washington to protest Trump’s presidency at the women’s march in 2017, she noted, 55 percent of White women voters in 2020 supported his reelection bid.

Wrighten said that even in feminist movements, White women have historically worked toward their own progress — initiatives and policies that would help White women, but not necessarily always benefit women overall.

“White women have always had the privilege of being White,” she said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.