The unique presidential election of 2016 in the US: Factoring in the race and gender issues

Women have consistently voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the last nine elections at higher rates than men Photograph:( Others )

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Nov 08, 2016, 07.33 AM (IST) Sanjukta Bhattacharya

                                       “This is a truly unprecedented election”: Michelle Obama

This is a truly unprecedented election, but in more ways than First Lady, Michelle Obama meant in her recent speech at a Clinton rally. Both presidential candidates have a trust deficit and on November 8, more Americans than in any past election will be casting negative rather than positive votes, that is, against the opposition candidate rather than for the candidate of their choice. 

It is also unique because this is the first time that a woman has been nominated as the candidate of a major political party. This is also the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower (1952, Republican), who at least had a strong military experience, that a major party has nominated a candidate with no prior experience in political office. This is also one race where several contemporary critical issues that should have been the subject of presidential debates, such as social security, executive authority, and immigration as well as rising national debt, tepid income and job growth appear to have linked overwhelmingly with the all-encompassing issues of gender and race. Since the early/mid-nineteenth century, the issues of race and gender have underscored US politics in varying extent but rarely had such a potential to determine the outcome of an election as in recent times, except perhaps in 2008. Women, men, African-Americans and Hispanics all have their particular views on social issues but in 2016, the groups have taken on a special significance over and above issues of social concern.

According to all major polls, the gender gap (the differences in proportions of men and women voting for a candidate) has never been higher than in this election. Women have consistently voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the last nine elections at higher rates than men. For instance, 55 per cent of women compared to 45 per cent of men voted for Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. However, the average gender gap since 1980 has varied between eight to ten percent. The only candidate to win with more than 20 percentage points of women’s votes was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, with Bill Clinton coming next with around 20 points in 1992. 

The gender gap this year, according to a collation of average data of various polls by fivethirtyeight.com, is 26 points in favour of Hillary Clinton. Trump, on the other hand, has a seven percentage point lead among men, which is comparable to George W. Bush’s share of male votes in 2000. While these figures will certainly vary on the election day, the gender gap of 2016 will probably be historic. 

Whether Clinton’s large lead among women is more a pro-Clinton or anti-Trump vote is anyone’s guess. But it is also true that there is a stark divide between Clinton and Trump supporters on gender issues. According to a survey conducted by Langer Research Associates for ABC, among Clinton supporters, 58 per cent say women have too little influence; only 21 per cent of Trump’s say the same.

Trump’s views on key issues like abortion is also likely to alienate women voters – he has claimed that he is pro-life and supports cutting off federal funds to planned parenthood unless clinics stop performing abortions; he has further said that abortions should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or if a woman’s life is in danger. On the other hand, Clinton is pro-choice, favours planned parenthood, and has long supported safe abortion. She has backed legislation to codify the Supreme Court’s verdict on Roe v. Wade to establish a constitutional right to abortion. Further, she is pushing her image as a woman who will break the “glass ceiling”, filling up the long absence of women presidents in the US if she is elected. In contrast, Trump’s sexist comments on women, which were further highlighted by the Trump tape, are abhorrent to women. Clinton has cashed in on this not only in personal attacks but also in an election advertisement which asks: “Is this the president we want for our daughters?”

It may also be mentioned here, there is a persistent gap in women in Congress and state legislatures – 76 per cent of all women in Congress and 64 per cent of all women officials in US state legislatures in 2013 were Democrats. In 2015, 76 out of 104 women members of the US Congress were Democrats. The Democratic Party apparently puts up more women candidates; it also has more women registered voters than the Republican Party. In Pew Research Center data dating to 1992, women have been consistently more likely than men to identify as a Democrat or lean toward the Democratic Party. Over the first half of 2016, 54 per cent of women identified with or leant toward the Democratic Party, compared with 42 per cent of men.

Trump and Clinton also hold different views on gay and transgender issues. Clinton supports same-sex marriages and opposes a North Carolina law that decrees that public bathrooms be used according to the sex listed in the birth certificate. Trump supports this law as also the Supreme Court decision granting nationwide right to same-sex marriage. His running-mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, made national news when he signed a law allowing businesses to refuse to serve gays and lesbians.

So far as race is concerned, African-Americans have voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats particularly in the last two elections. Given Trump’s views on Medicaid (or lack of it), support for historically black colleges and universities, civil rights, voting rights, criminal justice reforms among others, they are likely to vote for the Democrats again and that is Clinton’s “trump” card especially in key states like Florida, North Carolina and even Ohio. 

However, African-Americans are not the only racial group that matters in 2016; Hispanics as a group cannot be ignored in this election because the number of Hispanic eligible voters has increased by 4 million, accounting for 37 percent of the growth in all eligible voters since 2012, and they now have the numbers to act as a swing vote. According to Pew Research Center’s projections, a record 27.3 million Latinos are eligible to cast ballots, representing 12 per cent of all eligible voters, which is almost equivalent to the African-American figures for eligible voters. If the two are added together, it would mean a whopping 24 per cent of votes for the Democratic Party. 

Having said this, divisions during elections are not always binary even on race and gender issues despite candidate stances; there are many other factors that influence election outcomes. Despite Trump’s talk of building a wall to prevent illegal Latino immigrants from entering the US and deporting all illegal immigrants, there is no certainty that Hispanics will turn out to vote on  the election day in large numbers. In past elections, the Latino voter turnout rate lagged behind that of other groups. For example, in 2012 Latinos had a turnout rate of 48 per cent, compared with 67 per cent for blacks and 64 per cent for whites. Moreover, Clinton has more support from older Hispanic voters than Millennials, who make up 44 per cent of all eligible Latino vote. Early voting has shown a poor turnout among African-Americans, and given the Hispanic propensity of low voter turnout, this could swing the elections away from the Democratic Party.

A strong turnout of women, African-Americans and Hispanics, especially in battleground states, could mean a swing towards victory for the Democrats; a low turnout of these groups added to a strong turnout of the working class and rural voters, could spell the reverse outcome. While men and whites, especially white males with low education levels favour Trump, women and ethnic minorities have shown support for Clinton. Yet, what matters at the last call is voter turnout. Given that neither candidate is particularly popular and that the entire electoral race has been muddied by unsavoury revelations regarding both candidates, it has to be seen how many voters, particularly those who are not registered with either party, come out to vote on election day. That is ultimately what will determine the election outcome.