Women are the wave, but also the wall, for Democrats in 2018
Posted June 18, 2018 6:04 p.m. EDT
Updated July 2, 2018 1:55 p.m. EDT
(CNN) — Democrats are banking on a surge of female candidates to help them recapture the House of Representatives this November, especially with an approaching Supreme Court nomination fight that may revolve largely around the question of legal access to abortion.
But Democrats may not benefit as much as they hope from this dynamic unless their historic roster of female nominees can help the party solve its greatest remaining challenge with female voters.
To talk of a Democratic challenge with female voters may seem somewhat jarring. Polls during Donald Trump's presidency consistently show a huge gender gap, with women routinely expressing more negative views than men of Trump's performance, and a greater preference for Democrats in Congress. Big segments of the female population -- including African-American, millennial and college-educated white women -- are displaying towering levels of discontent with Trump.
Yet that overall advantage for Democrats masks a continuing problem among one key group of female voters: white women without a college education. Strong support from those blue-collar white women was key to Trump's victory in 2016, particularly in decisive Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
While polls indicate the Republican position among those women has weakened since 2016, surveys still consistently show more of them prefer the GOP than Democrats for Congress in 2018. If that pattern holds, it will make it difficult for Democrats to extend their election gains into more blue-collar and less urban House seats beyond the white-collar suburbs where Trump is weakest. And that would leave the party facing a tight squeeze to capture the 24 seats it needs to regain the House majority.
The debate over abortion triggered by this week's retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy could change this calculus -- but it's also possible that it will do more to extend the Democrats' advantage where they are already strongest -- Among African-American and college-educated white women -- than to loosen the Republican hold on working-class white women.
A field full of Democratic women
In primaries this year, the preference of Democratic voters for female candidates has been dramatic. David Wasserman, who follows House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, recently calculated that in Democratic House primaries featuring no incumbent and at least one female and one male candidate, a woman has won the most votes in 66 of 93 cases, or 71%. In all, through June 13, Wasserman calculates, Democrats have chosen female nominees in 73 of the 150 House primaries held so far without incumbents. That compares with just 18 female nominees in 112 Republican House primaries without incumbents, he found.
In many respects, the Democratic tilt toward female candidates is the logical culmination of the political dynamics since Trump's election. Coming after he bragged about sexually assaulting women in the 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape, Trump's election provoked its greatest backlash among Democratic-leaning women. That intensity was immediately apparent in the unprecedented women-led protest marches the weekend of Trump's inauguration. The emergence of the #metoo movement and the proliferation of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men in other arenas has only added fuel to that fire.
"Clearly the surge of women candidates is part of something much bigger," says veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who is extensively studying female voters this year for the Democratic group Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund. "Women in every social class, and every generation, have been hit by the Trump presidency and the effect and the political disruption of the women's march and the women candidates. Each of these things is reinforcing the trend."
Democrats have already experienced tangible benefits from the backlash against Trump among key groups of women. Huge margins and strong turnout among African-American women helped drive the victories of Ralph Northam in last fall's Virginia governor's race and Doug Jones in the Alabama US Senate contest. Northam and Jones also benefited from a surge toward them among college-educated white women.
Both of these groups appear poised to deliver big advantages to Democrats again in November. Black women, by all indications, remain one of the electorate's most energized groups. And there are some signs that this November could prove a realigning election among college-educated white women.
Those white-collar white women often tilt Democratic, but usually modestly. In exit polls since 1992, House Democrats have never carried more than 52% of them; in 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump among them, but only by a comparable margin of 51% to 44%. In presidential races extending back to 1980, the Democrats' best performance among them was the 52% that Barack Obama carried in 2008 and Al Gore won in 2000.
Polling so far this year shows the potential for a much sharper swing toward Democrats among those white-collar women. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll, 64% of college-educated white women said they disapproved of Trump's performance and 60% said they preferred Democrats for Congress, while just 30% wanted Republicans. In a Monmouth University Poll released Monday, Democrats led among college-educated white women by 57% to 38%.
"I think you are talking about realignment levels of gains among college-educated women here that are also associated with a big disruptive political event that is changing consciousness," said Greenberg, who recently conducted focus groups among white-collar white women in suburban Oakland County, Michigan. "Clearly there is a building solidarity in their communities about what is happening. And they are talking about their values in ways that they didn't easily talk about them (before) -- they talked about the way Trump treated people, tolerance, about bringing out conflict between different groups. There are so many ways in which the Trump presidency has led college white women to understand their shared values and it is producing big electoral numbers."
Abortion as a new key issue
The movement toward Democrats among white-collar white women seems certain to be reinforced by the prospect that Trump will nominate, and the Republican Senate will confirm, a replacement for Kennedy who is committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a nationwide legal right to abortion. If the decision is overturned, regulation of abortion could shift back to the states and many conservative states already have laws on the book reinstating an abortion ban if Roe is reversed.
Polling has consistently shown that a majority of Americans believe abortion should remain legal in most cases. Those sentiments are especially strong among two groups of women that are already the most exercised about Trump and the congressional GOP.
In 2017 polling by the Pew Research Center, 71% of college-educated white women and 63% of African-American women said abortion should remain legal in all or most cases, according to detailed results Pew provided to CNN. Cut another way, almost two-thirds of all women under 50 believe abortion should remain legal in most cases. Just over three-in-five college educated white men and nearly three-in-five African American men agreed. (A wild card is Hispanic women. Though a majority of them in the Pew poll said abortion should be less widely available, most of them are so estranged from Trump on other issues that even a visible fight over abortion probably won't move many to embrace him.)
While those views threaten to further energize groups already recoiling from the GOP under Trump, opinions on abortion are less lopsided among groups Republicans are counting on in November. Non-college white men split almost evenly (50% to 48%) on whether abortion should remain legal in most cases. Non-college white women, as is often the case, fall between the blue-collar men and white-collar women: 56% of them said abortion should remain mostly legal, while 42% said it should be mostly illegal. Even nearly two-fifths of women who identify as Republicans said abortion should remain legal in most cases, Pew found.
The non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation registered even greater support for the pro-choice position in a poll released this week when it asked respondents directly whether they wanted Roe overturned. About two-thirds of those polled said no, an overwhelming consensus that included three-fourths of college-educated white women, seven-in-10 college-educated white men and just over two-thirds of non-college white women.
It's not clear whether that phrasing, or the question about availability of abortion, more accurately captures the underlying public divide. But either way, there aren't many issues where that many women in the GOP coalition tilt so heavily toward the position favored by most Democrats. Depending on how the debate over Kennedy's replacement unfolds, those splits may allow Democrats to pry more of these Republican-leaning and blue-collar women away from the GOP than they have managed to do over roughly the past two decades.
Apart from health care, there aren't many issues where that many women in the GOP coalition tilt so heavily toward the position favored by most Democrats. Depending on how the debate over Kennedy's replacement unfolds, those splits may allow Democrats to pry more of these Republican-leaning and blue-collar women away from the GOP than they have managed to do over roughly the past two decades.
Choosing targets carefully
Democrats have positioned themselves to maximize their widening advantage among well-educated white women by nominating female candidates in many of the suburban white-collar districts at the top of their target list. The list of female Democratic nominees in highly vulnerable Republican suburban seats is formidable: It includes state Sen. Jennifer Wexton in northern Virginia; law professor Katie Porter in Orange County, California; and nonprofit executive Katie Hill in the Los Angeles exurbs; former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey; attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in suburban Houston; and attorney Mary Gay Scanlon and Air Force veteran Chrissy Houlahan outside Philadelphia.
Democrats have also chosen women in several suburban seats that represent tougher climbs for the party (former CIA analyst Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, registered nurse Lauren Underwood in Illinois, social worker Kara Eastman in Omaha and small business owner Cindy Axne in Iowa). In primaries later this year, the party also appears likely to select female nominees in several other top targeted white-collar districts, including Miami, suburban Detroit, Minneapolis and Tucson, and potentially two seats outside Atlanta, where women will face men in July runoffs.
The impact of this tilt toward female nominees isn't likely to be measured directly in shifting votes. Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, says the academic research finds little evidence that female voters are more likely to vote for female candidates. "For the most part, studies find that there is very little by way of a gender affinity affect," she said in an interview.
But the large number of female Democratic candidates, particularly in white-collar districts, could still have a significant effect by spurring more activism, engagement and turnout among the college-educated white women already most alienated from Trump.
"I think that having women on the ticket, being the candidates for the opposition in this moment, does have the potential to only heighten that enthusiasm and engagement among women more so than it changes their vote," says Dittmar, who's also an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers. "Most of these women probably would have voted for a Democrat anyway -- but does it increase their overall engagement with the election itself? Are they participating, going to the rallies, volunteering, giving more financial support -- all those levels of engagement? I do think that is an outstanding question that we are all paying attention to."
The risk for Republicans is that these dynamics reinforce each other: that even as more college-educated white women are recoiling from Trump's truculent vision of the GOP, the Democratic alternative is increasingly defined by professional women who look and sound like them.
"It may be that this election realigns the way affluent college women look at the two parties, because you are also seeing a lot of professional women being elected as Democrats, and almost only as Democrats, as part of this wave. That may well reinforce what is happening with them," Greenberg says. "I don't think this is just a blip."
With college-educated white men, usually a reliably Republican group, also expressing in polls unusual resistance to Trump and a greater preference for Democrats, the sharp shift among well-educated white women creates a clear and present danger for Republicans in affluent suburban districts. Democrats have not carried more than 38% of college-educated white men in any House election since 2008, but this week's Monmouth Poll gave the party a 13-percentage-point advantage among them.
A different picture in less affluent districts
But the equation still looks very different for Democrats in more blue-collar districts. There they face firm resistance among working-class white men: Nearly three-fifths of those men preferred Republicans for Congress in the Monmouth Poll and nearly two-thirds did so in the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey.
Given Trump's enormous appeal for these men (his approval among them stood at 68% in the NBC/WSJ poll), the Democrats are unlikely to capture many blue-collar seats unless they can make substantial inroads among non-college white women. And on that front, they still face a difficult climb.
Democrats have struggled enormously with these women in recent years. The party hasn't won more than 39% of them in any House election since 2008, and Trump beat Clinton, the first major-party female nominee, among them by 27 percentage points in 2016.
Recent polls show some improvement for Democrats: They trailed among these non-college white women by 7 percentage points in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal and Quinnipiac University surveys, though this week's Monmouth Poll gave Republicans a more daunting 13-percentage-point advantage among them. The growing prominent of abortion may provide Democrats an opportunity for greater gains than they have recorded in these polls, which were conducted before Kennedy's retirement. But given their troubles with working-class white men, Democrats will need to do better to win many of the blue-collar seats they are targeting.
That's why the extent of the Democratic wave in November may be decided not so much by whether their female nominees can maximize their advantages among women in white-collar districts, but whether their female candidates can loosen the Republican hold on female voters in primarily blue-collar seats.
On this tougher terrain, Democrats are also betting heavily on female candidates, including former Marine pilot Amy McGrath around Lexington, Kentucky, state Rep. Abby Finkenauer in northeast Iowa, former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones outside San Antonio, attorney Susan Wild in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, former Navy Cmdr. Elaine Luria in southeast Virginia and university administrator Lisa Brown in eastern Washington state. (In seats that represent a tougher climb for the party, they have also nominated small business owner and community activist Betsy Londrigan in central Illinois, attorney Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico and attorney Kathy Manning in northwest North Carolina.)
It seems guaranteed that the fierce backlash against Trump among many well-educated white women will allow Democrats in November to elect a substantial class of new female representatives from suburban districts who could quickly become rising stars in the party.
But whether Democrats win the House, much less establish any sizable majority, may depend more on whether female candidates such as McGrath, Wild and Finkenauer can establish connections with the blue-collar white women who helped put Trump into office -- and haven't yet decided to walk away.
Note: This story was first published before Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would be retiring and has been updated.