Donald Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again," is drenched in layers of nostalgia. The slogan itself has been swiped from the schmaltz-fueled 1980 campaign for Ronald Reagan. The naked racism spewing from Trump suggests that the what he feels will return America to its mythical glory days is to embrace of the white supremacy of the past. His widespread support amongst bona fide white supremacists shores up this reading.
But this kind of nostalgia is also about gender, as the America of many decades ago was also one where men controlled the ballot box.
Women may have won the vote in 1920, but men were the majority of voters for the next six decades. That started to change in the early '80s, when women started out-voting men. In 2012, 58.5% of women reported voting, compared to 54.4% of men. While most office holders are still men, women have quietly reshaped the nation's political discourse.
The nomination of Trump — a loudmouthed misogynist who can't seem to name a single talented woman besides his own daughter — can be understood in large part as a reaction to this trend, a temper tantrum thrown by angry men whose idea of making America great again means wresting control of it back from women.
"It is women who decide elections," Kate Black, the vice president of research at Emily's List, said in a phone interview. "It’s women who show up.”
[caption id="attachment_14569258" align="alignnone" width="550"] Source: Center for American Women and Politics[/caption]
Women's voting patterns helped reshape the Democratic party, explained Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers who does research for the Center for American Women and Politics.
Women "tend to be more vulnerable, still today, in terms of needing access to the social safety net, for their children and families, and for themselves," Dittmar noted. In the past few decades, she noted, the Democrats have adjusted their messaging to be more responsive to women's priorities, shedding the more conservative members of the party and sharpening their appeals to female voters.
"Democrats are really talking about the issues that women care about," Black agreed, noting that these issues tend mostly to be "economic security issues": Equal pay, paid family leave, job security, health care access.
"The conversation around women’s economic security issues certainly has increased over the past few election cycles," Black added. "You used to see these issues siloed on candidate websites under the ‘women’s issues’ section. Now they’re front and center."
All these efforts to tailor their message to female voters paid off for the Democrats. They consistently win the women's vote in presidential elections, which is a major coup, considering that women vote more than men.
[caption id="attachment_14569271" align="alignnone" width="454"] Source: Center for American Women and Politics[/caption]
"Women are the Democratic Party," Marcy Stech, the vice president of communications for Emily's List, said. "We are dominating the conversation."
But the partisan gender gap isn't just the result of women moving to the left, Dittmar argued.
"A lot of the shift is men’s shift to the right," she explained. As the Democrats became "a more progressive party", male voters, who are more conservative on average than female voters, started moving into the Republican camp.
So, just as the Democrats have become both more female-centric and progressive, the Republicans have become more male-centric and conservative. The result can be seen not just in their voting bases, but in their elected officials. While the Democrats have been steadily adding to their female representation, the Republicans are backsliding.
As David Bernstein at Politico reported over the weekend, "Since 2006, the proportion of women in the House GOP caucus has dropped from 11 percent to just 9 percent today. Although there are now 247 Republicans in the House, up from 229 a decade ago, there are fewer women: 22, down from 25."
None of this surprised the women at Emily's List.
"If you look at primaries, Republican women can’t get through Republican primaries," Black explained. "Typically, that’s because Republican primaries skew so far to the right that Republican women, who tend to be more moderate, can’t persuade those Republican primary voters to support them."
"I think a lot of Republican women have tried" to get more women onto the ballot, Stech argued. "And they’ve been met with deaf ears by Republican leaders."
Looking over the past few decades, one of the dominant political trends — perhaps the dominant trend — is that women are flocking to the Democrats, pushing them to the left, and in reaction, the majority of men are running to the Republicans and pushing them to the right.
This election season is the apex of this trend. It's not just that the Democrats have elevated the first female presidential nominee for a major party. Hillary Clinton is also explicitly feminist and her campaign messaging is strongly centered around the economic security concerns that Dittmar and the folks at Emily's List have flagged as the major draw for female voters.
On the flip side, you have Trump, a man who always seems on the verge of telling some woman to make him a sandwich. For men who resent the way women are amassing political power and shaping legislative priorities, supporting Trump sends a strong message: That a woman's place is, to quote Trump directly, "dropping to your knees" instead of pulling the levers of power.
The dramatic contrast exacerbates the already significant partisan gender gap. An NBC News poll released Wednesday shows that Clinton has a whopping 24 point advantage with women over Trump, which is up from 14 points last week. Compare that to 2012, when Obama's advantage over Romney with female voters was 11 points.
(Meanwhile, Trump is still besting Clinton by 5 points with men in this poll, though he is thankfully losing ground.)
But while this shift is extreme, it's also the logical conclusion of a multi-trend of a block of progressive women gaining political ground while reactionary men flip out about it. Trump/Clinton isn't an outlier of a race, but representative of the political forces that are shaping this country.
Part two of this examination of how gender is shaping the 2016 election will be published on Wednesday.