sábado, 15 de octubre de 2016

Revenge of the White Working-Class Woman

Politico illustration/Getty/AP/iStock
Rubén Weinsteiner

The white blue-collar vote isn’t the GOP monolith everyone thinks: It’s splitting fast, and Donald Trump is just part of the reason.

If you’ve read anything about this unprecedented 2016 campaign, you know this: Donald Trump’s solid core of support comes from white working-class America. As the blue-collar voter has become central to the political conversation, a clear picture of who we’re talking about has emerged: He’s likely male and disillusioned with the economy and loss of industry. He’s a coal miner that’s been laid off in Hazard, Kentucky, and is scraping by off his wife’s income; a machinists’ union member in a Pennsylvania steel town who says “a guy like Donald Trump, he’s pushing for change.” Through the campaign, we’ve seen endless portraits of Trump support in the heart of Appalachian coal country, and a recent spate of books documents white working-class alienation and the history of the white underclass in America. Trump’s iron grip on the support of blue-collar white Americans has been one of the most striking threads of his unprecedented campaign.

But over the past several months, that seemingly rock-solid core has started to fracture—and the fracture has widened dramatically this week for one key reason: Most of the white working class is actually female. And working-class white women now appear to be jumping off the Trump train.

The first polls to emerge since the release of the "Access Hollwood" videotape now show a historic gender gap splitting what might be the GOP’s most important constituency. The fracture was already apparent back in August, when a four-way poll showed Trump’s lead over Clinton among white men without a college degree was 40 percent, but only 12 percent among women without a college degree. This week, after the 2005 videotape was released, that number stayed roughly the same for blue-collar men—Trump is still up in that group by 43 percentage points—but it tanked for women, to a low that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s, with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1996. According to the first post-videotape poll, among white women without a college degree, Hillary Clinton had pulled even.

It might be easy to write off blue-collar women as a special interest group, like the 18-25 demographic of some slice of suburbia. But the situation is almost exactly the opposite: If you look at the white working class—Americans without a college degree—the majority, 53 percent, are women. Right now, the numbers suggest that within that group, women’s interests appear to be diverging so quickly from their male counterparts they could stop whatever momentum Trump has left. “The rationale for [Trump’s] candidacy is that he is the champion of the hardworking Americans that the elitists have left behind. But many of those hardworking Americans are women,” says John J. Pitney Jr., an American politics professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Though much of the current split can be blamed on Trump himself, and his growing record of misogynistic behavior and comments, the broader demographic undercurrents point to bigger changes afoot. White working-class enthusiasm for Trump has led to hand-wringing over what this demographic wants; including from the GOP itself, which modified its platform in 2016 to align more closely with the groundswell of opposition to free trade that Trump had apparently exposed. But if Republicans are going to retool their party around their newly restive populist base—and if Democrats are going to try to find a language and policies that can recapture it—they’re going to need to understand who this white working class actually is, including how it’s actually split by gender. So whatever political coalition emerges from this disruptive year in politics, it’s women’s interests that are going to prove crucial.

“In the America of 2016,” says Pitney, “you can’t win the presidency on just the votes of working-class white men. There just aren’t enough of them.”


Donald Trump at the campaign event in Ambridge, Pennsylvania where he told a crowd he considered him blue-collar "in a way." | AP Photo

Like their male counterparts, white less-educated women have been leaving the Democratic Party in droves in the past several elections. In the 1960 and 1964 elections, Democrats took an average of 55 percent of the white working-class votes, but only 35 percent in the two subsequent elections, and Ronald Reagan taking home an average of 61 percent of the white working-class vote in 1980 and 1984.

The theories on why this happened are varied, and not necessarily mutually exclusive. One theory has to do with racial identity; Joan Walsh, author of a book about this shift called What’s the Matter With White People? points to a key part of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to reach the white working class that demonized Democrats as the party that “coddles minorities, taking jobs and tax dollars from whites” and giving them to people of color. On the other end of the spectrum are those who think it has less to do with race and more with policies; these include author Thomas Frank, who recently published Listen, Liberal, about the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the working class and Robert Reich, public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. They both have outlined a series of Democratic moves to elevate free trade and an inability to defend unions as proof that Democrats created a platform that left no room for the white working class.

Marginalized for years without working-class candidates or elected officials, “the white working class found their voice in Trump,” says Justin Gest, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. “He speaks directly to conspiracy, frustration and a sense of powerlessness, and they’re grateful he speaks to them.” Trump, too, has worked hard to burnish his working-class cred, telling a crowd in Pennsylvania on Tuesday that he considers himself “in a certain way to be a blue-collar worker.”

While this blue-to-red shift includes white working-class men and women, it’s been the men who have been more enthusiastic for GOP candidates—and that gender split is more pronounced than ever this election. If you compare white blue-collar support for Trump this election with support for Mitt Romney in 2012, a clear picture of the Trump enthusiasm gap emerges: White working-class men’s support for the GOP candidate has increased between the past two elections, whereas white working-class women’s support has decreased: They supported Romney by a margin of 20 points in 2012, according to an analysis by the public affairs research firm AGC Research, and now, going off of that post-video poll alone, they’re equally split between Trump and Clinton at 40 percent. (AGC Research's most recent numbers have him at 12 percent, but it's a figure that includes pre-videotape polling.) Trump, it should be noted, is also performing worse than Romney was with white men and women with college degrees.

So what do we learn by taking a closer look at how white working-class men and women diverge? While polling on this specific intersection of class, race, and gender is hard to come by, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research has amassed years of research into white working-class attitudes and has found that when it comes to Trump, many white working-class women find him unappealing for exactly what turns off more educated women. In the firm’s focus group of less educated white women in Akron, Ohio, most were disturbed by Trump’s demeanor, his divisiveness, his language and his crudeness. And in a word association exercise at a focus group in June, the white non-college-educated women rattled off a number of insults: Entitled, useless, bully.

“Donald Trump is a f-----g nightmare,” Valeri Jones, who lives in Kentucky and works at an automotive plant, said in an exchange on Facebook. “As a woman, I am terrified of the thought of him being the President. His multiple degrading comments towards women, as well as his general attitude that women are ‘beneath him,’ really turn me off towards him.”

And an Illinois woman who works in shipping and declined to use her name said “the idea of a Trump presidency scares me.” She identifies as a lifelong third-party voter, but in this election her “only goal is to get someone in office who isn't Trump.” “I think the immigration issue is important but I don't like Trump's solutions,” she said. “I'd really like to see candidates talk about this issue realistically and with compassion.”

Trump’s latest implosion—the unearthed video in which he flat out brags about sexually assaulting women—isn’t helping his image with this group of women. Despite his repeated attempts to change the subject to “more important things” in the second debate, it’s hard to not choke on the idea that sexual assault and harassment aren’t pressing issues—particularly for the workers Trump is angling for.

Data show that for women in male-dominated fields, like construction and transportation, the rate of sexual harassment of women is significantly higher than in women-dominated fields like education and health services. Jones, the autoworker in Kentucky, says sexual harassment is endemic in her industry and has had an experience that lines up: She’s been sexually harassed by a male coworker in every factory she’s worked in, and at her last job, it was her supervisor harassing her. When she reported him, she says he retaliated and she was essentially forced to quit.

“Trump's recent statements bring up all of the times that I have been touched inappropriately at work or just in public trying to go about my day,” she says. “All those things that are shrugged off as ‘boys will be boys’ will become ACCEPTABLE under Trump.”

Beyond just being put off by Trump and his personality this election, though, white working-class women have different policy concerns in general than white working-class men. While white working-class men in battleground states surveyed by GQRR focus groups reported the economy and jobs as a top factor, white-working class women chose national security and terrorism more often than the economy. And Trump’s approach falters with these women. “They worry that’s he’s so aggressive and macho—and yet uneducated about the world—that he will embroil us in some conflict,” Anna Greenberg, of GQRR, says.

In terms of the economy, white working-class women also differ from their male counterparts. While manufacturing concerns and the white working class may be linked in our cultural narrative (especially in Trump’s campaign), the women were focused on different economic concerns—in particular, the cost of higher education and preschooling.

Other demographic trends might place additional weight on the current gender-political split, like the trend of white working-class women staying single for longer. Single women tend to lean to the left, and in recent years white working-class marriage rates have fallen more sharply than those of their more educated and affluent counterparts, who are more likely to delay marriage than not get married at all, according to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of Census data. (Roughly 45 percent of white working-class women are unmarried, according to GQRR’s Nancy Zdunkewicz). In a June/July national survey by GQRR, white working-class women put Trump 23 points ahead of Clinton in a three-way ballot, but when you looked at only unmarried white non-college-educated women, that gap was only 11 percent—a preview, if current trends continue, of a gap likely to grow in the future.

These gender gaps might dash Trump’s campaign hopes this election—a Democracy Corps study from earlier this year asserts that “it is statistically impossible for Trump to turn out enough angry white working-class men to surpass Clinton”—but Trump’s misfiring with the women of the white working class reflects a larger issue as old coalitions collapse and key demographics, like the white working class, are rescrambled across partisan lines.


For Democrats hoping to capitalize on this group, it’s not obvious they can just swoop in and grab alienated women. For one thing, white working-class women don’t necessarily trust Hillary Clinton any more than men do. The goal for Democrats “is to convert white working-class women’s vote from an anti-Trump vote to a pro-Clinton vote,” Tamara Draut, author of The Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America, says. The Democrats do have some traction when it comes to policy: In a GQRR survey from the summer, 66 percent of white women without a college degree said they found Clinton’s economic agenda—which was presented to them as focused on paid sick leave, equal pay for women and affordable childcare—a convincing choice for the country.

Explicitly bringing in more white working-class voters to the Democratic tent, though, comes with risks, particularly of alienating other parts of the coalition of Latinos, African-Americans and Asians the party has built, says Gest. Exhibit A: Bernie Sanders, who won a lot of working-class support but didn’t cut it with minorities. “Democrats aren’t willing to broaden their tent at the risk of demographically ascendant groups,” Gest says.

For now, though, if Democrats continue bleeding white working-class men and women, the party’s white base will be mostly highly educated and white collar, a perhaps uncomfortable shift for the so-called party of the people. And sure, the White House might be tough, but for the Democrats, Congress is even worse: Less educated white people are concentrated geographically in some regions where the party increasingly doesn’t stand a chance.

For Republicans, losing the women of their base means that they risk becoming the party of white men only. Though perhaps their task is more straightforward—staying away from men whose tone, demeanor and comments alienate women. “The gender gap was already a major problem for the GOP going into this election,” Draut says. “Trump and Pence have only widened women’s mistrust of the Republican Party.”

If either party wants to better understand white working-class women, they might take a look at some of the issues that pollsters and professors of the white working class kept pointing to as important for the women of this group: Paid leave, child care, minimum wage and equal pay. And, in their own ways, both candidates do seem to be leaning into these issues: 2016 was the first year that both the Republican and Democratic candidate proposed paid family leave policies—revolutionary in its own right. As the working class expands to include more people of color in the future, likely becoming majority nonwhite by the year 2032, both parties will have to adjust to a rapidly changing blue-collar population—and white women are just one small part of it.

Rubén Weinsteiner

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