The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White women helped elect Trump. Now he’s losing their support.

Protesters gathered for a second Women's March across the globe on Jan. 20. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

One of the demographics that some Americans were most surprised to see board the Trump train during the 2016 election was white women.

Trump's positions on abortion and paid family leave, among other issues, concerned sizable percentages of female voters leading up to the election. Trump also faced sexual misconduct allegations from nearly 20 women.

But that did not keep some women from boarding the Trump train — particularly white women.

While Clinton won women's votes overall, most white women — 52 percent — voted for Trump, according to exit polls. And more than 6 in 10 — 61 — percent of white women without a college degree backed the president.

This move was consistent with previous elections. White women have backed Republicans for president more than they have Democrats. Most white women -- 56 percent -- voted for Romney in 2012. And most white women without degrees backed the GOP presidential nominee in every presidential election since 2000.

However, many women considered Trump's candidacy — and white women's support of it — particularly problematic and made their views known everywhere, including editorial columns and the Women's March on the Mall the day after Trump's inauguration.

And while Trump didn't win white college-educated women, the fact that more than 4 in 10 — 44 percent — voted for him was something many liberal white women found problematic.

“A lot of this election was turned by white, college-educated women who now would like to forget about this election and go back to watching HGTV,” actress Tina Fey said in 2017 at a Facebook Live fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. “You can’t look away because it doesn’t affect you this minute, but it’s going to affect you eventually.”

But there seems to have been a shift among some women, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC poll. Despite 47 percent approving of Trump in an April Post-ABC poll, 37 percent of white women now approve of Trump's job performance, in a Post-ABC poll released this week. And a quarter of these women strongly approve of the way Trump is doing his job, compared with 37 percent of white men.

Support for Trump among white women with college degrees has decreased significantly. While 40 percent approved of the president's job performance in April. Only 27 percent do so now.

Trump has also lost support from white women without a college degree — one of the demographics most supportive of him. Less than half -- 43 percent -- of these women approve of Trump's job performance. And 29 percent of those strongly approve of the way the president is handling his job.

But for some activists, disapproval is not enough, if it does not translate into votes. Many women who had significant issues with Trump's character and policy still voted for him.

After the 2016 election, New Hampshire resident Erin Keefe, then 22, voted for Trump and told The Post why:

“His degrading language toward women bothers me, and his views on global warming are a problem for me. I do not 100 percent love Trump, but I am convinced he can lead this nation. I was part of the silent majority.”

At the Women's March #PowertothePolls rally Sunday in Las Vegas, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards credited women of color with getting liberal candidates elected across the country in Alabama, Virginia and Wisconsin after the 2016 presidential race.

“These victories were led and made possible by women of color,” she said before challenging white women to join these women.

“So white women, listen up. We've got to do better,” Richards added. “It is not up to women of color to save this country from itself. That's on all of us. That's on all of us.”

But Americans should be slow to think that all white women who supported Trump will stop supporting the president. Nearly 4 in 10 — 38 percent -- women said they were or lean Republican, according to the 2016 Pew Research Center’s party identification report. The number of white women identifying as Republican is nearly half (47 percent), about the same percentage of white women identifying as Democrats (46 percent).

And Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, told The Washington Post's Vanessa Williams that criticism of white female 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,” she said.

Like men, women tend to vote based on their ideology and party affiliation. And for some female voters, the most important issues for women are free markets, smaller government and ending legal abortion.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School after the election, said women and other Trump supporters didn't allow Trump's offensive comments about women to sway them.

“Voters were being told constantly, 'Stare at this, care about this, make this the deal-breaker once and for all,' " NPR reported her saying. “And they were told that five or six times a week about different things. And yet they went, they voted the way voters have always voted: on things that affect them, not just things that offend them.”

The challenge the GOP faces — according to the party's leaders — is that Republicans have women problems. Heading into Alabama's special Senate election, which featured a Trump-backed candidate who was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls while in his 30s, Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel delivered a two-page memo to the White House describing the GOP's declining support with female voters.

Trump often makes political decisions based on what is resonating most with his base. But that base includes white women. And for a leader experiencing some of the lowest approval ratings in history, retaining as much support as possible will be key to securing another four years in the White House.