Democrats Have a White Women Problem

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Nov 06, 2014

When you look at Tuesday’s election results by gender, it seems that the Democrats and Republicans split the women’s vote pretty evenly, with a few percentage points in favor of Dems. But when you examine that data by gender and race, you’ll get a wholly different picture that highlights an Achilles’ heel for Democrats: white women.

Exit polls released by CNN show that white women’s votes went to the Republicans by a margin of 13 percent. Fifty-six percent of white women voted Republican while only 43 percent voted Democrat.

And if you look at the numbers for black and brown women, you see just how big the race gap really is. Ninety percent of black women and 67 precent of Latina women voted Democrat. (It’s worth noting that Black and Latino men also voted for Democrats more than white women did–86 and 58 percent respectively.) Even when you break it down by age, the white vote went to Republicans. These numbers mean even more when you consider that white people make up two-thirds of the electorate, with the vote evenly split between white men and women.

While the long game may be to focus on the emerging majority-of-color electorate, Democrats may be sacrificing today’s elections by overlooking the power of the white women’s vote. Both times that Barack Obama was elected president, there has been a pretty consistent line among advocates in the progressive feminist movement: "Women won the election." But a small-but-important detail is often omitted: He actually lost with white women.

"When you actually look at the numbers, it’s women of color who have won the elections in spite of white women," says Lindsey O’Pries, a white progressive activist living in Richmond, Va. "We’re not able to be critical of white women because we’re not acknowledging what’s happening. The refrain is, ‘Women won the election.’ But the credit is not being given where it is deserved."

Progressives have put a lot of time, energy and resources into cultivating black and brown voters. This is a commonsense approach–the numbers clearly show that if you bring them to the polls, they’ll vote Democratic. And voter turnout is something even non-partisan 501 (c)(3) groups can do without restriction. 

But O’Pries questions whether her get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactics have their limits. "In Virginia, whenever I’m doing GOTV work, it’s always in communities of color. But am I really the best ambassador of that? [Shouldn’t] I be focusing more on my own people? And how do you do that in a comprehensive way?"

O’Pries says that with white voters, who already turn out at high numbers, the work has to be focused on changing minds and selling candidates. Republicans are clearly doing a better job than Democrats on that front.

This isn’t the first election where the gap was so large between white women’s and Latina and black women’s Democratic vote. In the 2010 midterms, 58 percent of white women voted Republican while black and Latina women did so at 6 and 33 percent respectively.

People may finally be taking notice. Andrea Grimes, senior reporter for RH Reality Check, wrote passionately about the Democrat Wendy Davis’ loss in the Texas gubernatorial race in an article appropriately titled "White Women: Let’s Get Our Shit Together": "It was women like me–married white women, specifically–who failed Wendy Davis–and ourselves, and our families, and Texas families–on Tuesday night. According to exit polls, Black women, Black men, Latinas, and a near-majority of Latinos who voted turned out in solid numbers for Davis."

The major game-changer for the white-women’s vote might be a presidential run for Hillary Clinton. She might resonate with white women voters in a way that Barack Obama–and his mostly white, male Democratic party–has not. But like the saying goes: The first step is admitting you have a problem. Democrats can’t afford to wait for demographic shifts to change the game. They’ve got to get their own white majority on board. After all, as the recent past indicates, Republicans may use their power to keep communities of color from the polls, only further upping the ante for Democrats to figure out how to reach white women.