As the primary contests begin to wind down and it looks more and more like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be the Democratic and Republican nominees for president, each of the candidates has begun to pivot to a general election mindset. Among other things, this means that each is beginning to campaign with the other as an eventual opponent in mind. For Donald Trump, this has meant giving attention to Hillary Clinton’s sex. Just last week, he stated that she lacked the requisite experience to be president and was only successful in her run for the Democratic nomination because she is a woman. While a nation of women looked on in bemusement as a male candidate suggested that being a woman was an advantage to a presidential candidate, Trump accused Clinton of playing the “women’s card.” He then proceeded to claim that “women don’t like her.”
As with many things Trump claims, the irony of his statement that women don’t like Hillary Clinton is that he is actually the one with the “woman problem.” Public opinion polls demonstrate that he is deeply unpopular with American women, and this dislike cuts across groups where Republican male candidates are usually strong. In an April 2016 Gallup poll, 70 percent of women said they had an unfavorable impression of Trump. According to a Democracy Corps poll, Trump is deeply unpopular among unmarried women and women between the ages of 18-29. Perhaps most concerning for Trump, only 49 percent of Republican women had a favorable impression, while 46 percent had an unfavorable view.
The reality that Trump is unpopular with many American women, even Republican women, coupled with his clear desire to take on sex and gender issues, creates a situation in which the predicted patterns of voter support for candidates may be less useful that they have been in years past. Specifically, we know of relatively little evidence that women support women candidates simply because of a shared sex or gender identity. Instead, there is clear evidence that women and men are overwhelmingly likely to support the candidate of their own political party, regardless of the sex of that candidate. However, the election of 2016 is likely to present a unique situation in which we have a male candidate, deeply disliked by women, running against a woman candidate. Does 2016 offer an opportunity for us to determine whether women voters, particularly Republican women, can be “pushed” toward a woman candidate by the circumstances of the election campaign?
Already, this primary season has seen significant attention to Trump’s treatment of women and his positions on gender issues. His treatment of Megyn Kelly and the language he has used in the past to describe women as “bimbos,” “pigs” and “dogs” offered Americans an introduction to his bombastic style. His attacks on Heidi Cruz and his tortured positions on whether women who seek abortions should be punished with jail time continued the uncomfortable treatment of women and women’s issues. Most recent are his comments about Clinton’s lack of credentials to be president and his sense that “political correctness” has smoothed her path to the Democratic nomination. These kinds of comments, combined with the presence of the first woman candidate for president, could create an atmosphere in which gender becomes a more salient influence on voting decisions, particularly among women. While not directly analogous, the congressional elections of 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman” offer perhaps our best comparison. In that election year, attention to gendered issues like President Bush’s veto of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and the underrepresentation of women in Congress, combined to create an environment in which a number of women candidates were elected to both the House and the Senate. Examinations of voting patterns in that election suggested that attention to these issues increased the salience of gender for women voters. Other research conducted on congressional elections in the 1990s and early 2000s finds that Republican women voters are more likely to cross party lines to vote for a woman candidate than are Democratic women.
As this primary season winds down and the Stop Trump movement appears likely to fail, prominent Republicans around the country are debating whether they can support Donald Trump as the eventual party nominee. That this conversation is taking place at all is extraordinary. But if it is happening among party elites and elected officials, we know it will happen among party voters as well. If Trump’s weakness with women voters continues amid a campaign that heightens the importance of sex and gender issues, we may have an opportunity to experience a rigorous test of our basic assumptions that party loyalty “trumps” gender identity, even among women voters.
Kathleen Dolan is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Her research focuses on gender politics, public opinion, elections, and voting behavior. Dolan is the author of When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates (Westview Press, 2004). Her work has also appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and edited books. She has served as co-editor of the journal Politics & Gender and as a member of the board of the American National Election Studies.