The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the gender gap doomed Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel the day after the election on Nov. 9 in New York. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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There were countless stories this campaign about Donald Trump’s ostensibly insurmountable gender gap (including this piece from me back in May). After all, several surveys as recently as a few weeks ago showed Trump losing female voters by an average of 20 percentage points — a record deficit that would have been virtually impossible to overcome if it had held.

But, of course, female voters did not provide Hillary Clinton with such a decisive victory. In fact, Clinton’s 12-point margin of victory among women was almost identical to Barack Obama’s 13- and 11-point wins with female voters in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

Meanwhile, Trump significantly expanded upon recent Republican victories among men, growing the GOP’s margin to 12 points in 2016, compared with 1 point in 2008 and 7 points in 2012.  This effectively doomed Clinton’s bid to become the country’s first female president.

It remains to be seen how much of this boost in male support for the Republican presidential candidate was rooted in sexist support for Trump and/or gender-based opposition to Clinton. Data from the past eight years, however, is rather clear about one thing:

Hillary Clinton has not benefited much — if at all — from group solidarity among women.   

Indeed, Donald Kinder and Allison Dale-Riddle concluded from their analyses of data gathered during the 2008 Democratic primaries that “group solidarity among women has little or nothing to do with support for Hillary Clinton.”

Likewise, the first graph below shows little to no relationship between a common measure of group-based solidarity — a sense of shared fate with other group members — and women’s thermometer ratings of Clinton in the 2012 American National Election Study. Clinton was riding a record wave of popularity in the fall of 2012, but it was not driven by women who scored high in gender consciousness.

Nor did Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination originate in gender identity. The next graph shows a nonsignificant relationship between support for Clinton in the primaries and women’s belief that gender is an important part of their identity.

The story is a bit more complicated for the general election.  Gender identity was a significant predictor of women’s vote intention in the September wave of RAND’s Presidential Election Panel Survey.  But as the graph below suggests, she was not particularly advantaged by that relationship.

Women with strong gender identities still rated Obama much more favorably than Clinton; and the sizable number of women who do not think gender is a particularly important part of their identity (40 percent) were especially anti-Clinton.

These patterns are markedly different from black support for Obama.  Prior research showed that Obama’s unusually strong support from African Americans during his 2008 presidential candidacy and throughout his presidency was strongly rooted in feelings of racial group solidarity. Such solidarity led African Americans to turn out and vote for Obama at higher rates than any other presidential candidate in history, which helped offset inevitable defections from racially prejudiced whites.

Unfortunately for Clinton, there was no similar surge in support from gender-conscious women to offset the largest presidential victory among male voters since 1988. That isn’t all that surprising, either. As Nancy Burns and Don Kinder put it:

The social organization of gender emphasizes intimacy between men and women; the social organization of race emphasizes separation between whites and blacks. Separation fosters  solidarity among African Americans. Integration impairs solidarity among women.

If there was ever an election that could have changed this, it was this one. But it didn’t. It will probably take more group-based solidarity for a female candidate with such a strong record of support for gender equity to shatter the highest and hardest glass ceiling in the world.

Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at UC Irvine and author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.”