Many were surprised when white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but they shouldn’t have been.
Even though women overall tend to vote for Democrats, white women have regularly voted Republican since the 1950s, a fact that may have been obscured by traditional voter analysis that sets white men as the default group.
“When you use white men as the standard, of course women look super Democrat, because white men are disproportionately much more heavily Republican,” says Jane Junn, professor of political science and gender and sexuality studies at the University of Southern California.
“When you use that as the baseline category from which everything else is then analyzed, you fail to see that pattern of white female support for Republicans, and Trump in particular, and the same thing happens in .”
Junn has co-authored a paper suggesting that voting behavior analysis that interprets the results for women as a deviation from the patterns set by men is outdated and obscures true voter preference.
When it comes to voter analysis, the default group is traditionally the largest voting group. And even though women outvote men—and have done so since the 1960s—white male voters continue to be the norm against which all other voting groups are compared.
“It violates what we would ordinarily do when we use statistics to interpret group-based behavior, and that is, it is identifying the modal group incorrectly. … Mode just means the largest group, and males—in particular, white males—are not the largest group of voters in the United States,” Junn says. “That is actually females. White females are the modal group in U.S. voting behavior, and that goes for national level—presidential voting—and also at the local level.”
In 2020, 68% of women who were eligible to vote reported that they voted, compared to the 65% turnout for men. In the 2016 presidential election, 63% of women and 59% of men reported voting.
When it comes to race and gender, 69.6% of white women reported voting, compared to 67% of white men in 2020. While in 2016, 66.8% of white women and 63.7% of white men reported voting.
Junn says the white male-centric approach to voter analysis is limiting because it doesn’t take the dynamic nature of the electorate into consideration.
“The vantage point encourages us to think in static terms,” she says. “It encourages us to think about behavior only as a function of the past, or mostly as a function of the past, and it encourages us to just think things are stable.”
Rethinking how votes are analyzed requires undoing centuries of conditioning, says Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
“What is the modal group? What is the norm? What is the ideal within the political sphere?” Koning asks. “The political sphere has always been synonymous with male and with masculinity, and I think it takes a lot of time to change, to overturn, and to evolve from something like that.”
Setting white men as the normal standard to which everyone else is compared can imply that anything that is dissimilar from that is abnormal or deviant, according to Junn.
“Why do we still say, you know, the senator from Kentucky, but we have to say the female senator from West Virginia? Or the candidate for president, Joe Biden and the Black female vice presidential candidate?” Junn says. “The modifiers are always attached to categories that are unusual or different.”
“You're creating a very specific frame through which the political system is being seen that frankly, may not be the frame that is beneficial or is most beneficial for the public good and the advancement of society.”
She thinks it will take many more election cycles to break the historical habit of painting men as the modal group.
“This discussion has leveled up in the classroom. I think this discussion is bubbling up within gender studies and women in politics programs. I don't know if this discussion has really reached a mainstream level,” Koning says. “I don't think it is a conversation that is being had at the forefront yet, even after all of this, even after all these decades.”