The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s wrong with white women voters? Here’s the problem with that question.

A woman fills out her ballot at a voting booth alongside her son. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

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The 63 percent of white women who voted for Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election for Senate did not, as has been suggested by some progressives, betray the sisterhood.

White women voters were excoriated on social media for their performance in last week’s contest, in which Moore narrowly lost to Democrat Doug Jones. Critics were especially incredulous because Moore, 70, a former state judge, had been accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

Black women have been celebrated as the sheroes who delivered the coveted Senate seat to the Democratic Party, after exit polls showed that 98 percent of them voted for Jones.

“What’s wrong with white women?” was a common refrain during debates that recalled similar disappointment last year when 52 percent of white women shunned the first female major party presidential nominee in favor of Donald Trump, who had been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — and was accused of doing just that by several women during the campaign.

But the suggestion that something is wrong with women who vote for candidates like Trump and Moore, or for Republicans generally, is misguided and unfair, say some political scientists. It doesn’t take into account that women, who make up more than half of the U.S. electorate, have diverse backgrounds and experiences and have different, and in some cases competing, political priorities. It also ignores the fact that a majority of white women have voted for the Republican presidential nominee in all but two elections since 1952.

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Kelly Dittmar, a political-science professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said the recent criticism of white women voters is “embedded with the biases of more progressive women.”

“Some of those expressing concern and confusion about why women identify with the Republican Party are really asking why these women don’t seem to identify with other women who view Republican policies as problematic for women.”

Among women overall, 54 percent identified as Democrats or lean Democratic and 38 percent said they were or lean Republican, according to the Pew Research Center’s party identification report. Among white women, however, voter identification was split almost evenly — 47 percent Republican and 46 percent Democrat. Still the percentage of white women who identify as Republicans is far lower than white men, 61 percent of whom say they are or lean Republican.

Women, just like men, tend to vote based on their party affiliation and ideology, and Dittmar said it’s wrong to assume these women don’t know what they’re doing. For some women, free markets, smaller government and curbing abortion “is pro-women. They see that as particularly helpful to women and families, so it doesn’t seem to stand in contrast to voting for somebody from that party.”

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In interviews with reporters leading up to the election, women voters in Alabama gave a range of reasons why they were sticking with Moore: He was a staunch opponent of abortion for any reason, he would stand up to the Washington establishment, he would protect the Senate majority. Some also said they didn’t believe the women who had accused Moore of sexual misconduct.But Dittmar also said critics should cut white women some slack in last week’s election because their level of support for Moore was far less than it had been for Republican candidates in previous elections.

My colleague, polling analyst Emily Guskin, was berated by some on Twitter on election night when she pointed out this fact.

But Guskin insists that it’s worth noting that, “Yes, a 63 percent majority of white women voted for Moore. But that’s a drop in support for Moore than either Mitt Romney or John McCain were able to garner in presidential elections in the state. In 2012, 83 percent of white women in Alabama voted for Romney and in 2008, 88 percent voted for McCain. That 20-point decrease in support for the Republican candidate in Alabama between 2012 and the 2017 special election was not as wide among white men.”

Still, she acknowledged, “even with that shift, if the Alabama electorate for the special election this December was made of just white women, Moore would have bested Jones with a majority of votes.”

Jane Junn, a professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Southern California, said political scientists also should take a more intersectional approach to their study of women voters. She said that the Democratic Party is winning the gender gap because of the disproportionate support from women of color, particularly black women.

In a paper published earlier this year, she made the argument that white women’s political behavior could be shaped more by their race than their gender.

“The Republican Party is the party of white people,” Junn said in an interview, noting that the Democratic Party’s base has become more and more diverse. It’s not unreasonable to think that just like men, white women in the South and Rust Belt states also would conclude, “Wait a minute, this isn’t my party anymore.”

More from About US:

These white Americans say they’re already having frank conversations about racism with African Americans

I’m the descendant of a founding father and I have two black daughters — and I am racist

Omarosa’s exit: Why black Republicans struggle to fit in at the White House and at the barbecue