“Where women run they win.” This reliable refrain from the gender and politics literature failed to match the results of the 2016 presidential election, and many scholars scrambled to explain Donald Trump’s surprising victory. The Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a seasoned public servant and was predicted to win in most polls. Meanwhile, her Republican male opponent had no office-holding experience, and was the focus of a recent scandal involving a leaked tape where Trump bragged about how his celebrity status allowed him to “grab them [women] by the pussy.” His unconventional candidacy made the 2016 electoral returns nothing short of remarkable.
Much of the popular attention to gender in elections focuses on the so-called gender gap between men and women. Since 1980, women have voted for Democratic presidential candidates at higher rates than men. However, this focus on gender identity—men versus women—obscures what we consider a more important gender effect. Namely, how voters think about gender may be more relevant to vote choice than the gender with which voters identify. In the 2016 election, Trump regularly discussed gender in ways that encouraged voters to draw on their beliefs about gender when casting their ballots.
In our article, we argue that gender beliefs, or sexism, worked to shut out the most qualified candidate in 2016. Further, White voters, as members of a dominant group incentivized to support social hierarchies, were the most likely group to apply their sexist attitudes toward their voting behavior. In order to test our claims, we used an original exit poll survey data of over 1,300 voters conducted at 12 precincts in Oklahoma City on Election Day and a post-election national survey of over 10,000 White and Black Americans. Oklahoma City is one of the ten metropolitan areas that most closely match national demographics—age, educational attainment, race, and ethnicity—in the country. We took advantage of that and selected our precincts based on the racial demography of the neighborhoods. We conducted the poll in four types of precincts—predominantly Black, predominantly Latino, predominantly White, and racially mixed. We fielded the election exit survey with the help of 54 undergraduate and 7 graduate students, all from the University of Oklahoma.
We find that while some members of all racial groups endorse sexist stereotypes about women’s lack of fitness for office, White voters are especially likely to apply such beliefs to their support for Trump. Moreover, we find that sexism is not only linked to vote choice, but to how much voters favor Trump. By contrast, there is not a significant association between sexism and favoring Clinton, which supports our contention that sexism was primarily activated in the campaign, not by Clinton’s gender identity, but by Trump’s rhetoric about women.
Interestingly, in the Oklahoma City analysis, we find that White women’s sexism was significantly linked to their vote, whereas there was no relationship for White men (see Figure 1). Among Whites who express the lowest levels of sexism there is no significant difference in vote choice for men and women, although men are more likely to support Trump than women. However, among voters who express the highest levels of sexism, White women are significantly more likely to vote for Trump than White men. Meanwhile, in the national survey, we find that both White voters and Black voters, across gender, link sexism to the vote, although the effect of sexism on vote choice is much larger for Whites than Blacks.
We conclude that beliefs about gender influenced the 2016 presidential election, and that White voters—including women—who believe that women are less competent than men in the political realm, employed sexism in their voting behavior. Men of all races may have held higher overall levels of sexism, but it was White men and women who responded most strongly to sexist campaign rhetoric, to the benefit of the candidate who chose to politicize sexism.