The hidden sexism that could sway the election
Armando Manno was in a good mood. His bartending shift at Louie's Bar & Grill in Akron, Ohio was almost over, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were ahead in the first quarter of a pivotal playoff game. It was May 25, near the end of the primary season, and talk had shifted to the presidential election. “Trump is going to make the right moves,” Manno, the son of Italian immigrants and a lifelong Republican, said as he wiped down the bar. “You don’t become a gazillionaire if you don’t know what you’re doing. He’s gotta have something upstairs.” As for Hillary Clinton, Manno said that he didn't want her in the White House. She was untrustworthy and willing to say anything to get elected, he said. And she possessed another, more fundamental shortcoming, Manno added: her gender. “Nothing against women," he said, "but I don’t want a woman president right now.”
Manno laughed and gave a sheepish, that’s-just-how-I-feel shrug. As he turned away, a waitress named Mary Stone quietly offered a different point of view. Though she’s also planning to vote for Trump in the fall, Stone said she could relate to the cultural barriers that Clinton faces as a woman. “Men are still chauvinistic enough to think that women can’t do the same job as them. And I think that’s an issue.”
Heading into the general election, Clinton has a wide lead over Donald Trump among minority and female voters. But Clinton, who made history last week as the first woman to clinch the nomination of a major U.S. party, has struggled with the one big voting bloc that’s truly up for grabs in 2016: moderate white men. White men also happen to be Trump’s base. If he doesn’t get a record number of them to turn out, it’s hard to see how he wins the presidency. Women, African-Americans, and Latinos will still play a crucial role in the race. They skew Democratic and anti-Trump. If Clinton keeps that coalition together, she can afford to lose some white men. But she can’t afford to lose too many.
The Clinton campaign knows this. Clinton spent significant time in the primaries courting white male voters — in particular white, mostly working-class men in the key Rust Belt and Midwestern swing states that usually decide presidential elections. And yet, despite all the effort, the results were abysmal. Clinton lost the overall male vote to Bernie Sanders by an average of 10 points in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, according to an analysis of exit poll data. She also lost men by double-digits in states as varied as Nevada, Connecticut and Oklahoma. In contrast, she won the male vote by wide margins in states that have large numbers of African-American and Latino voters. In short, white men are the last holdout.
Brian Brown, a registered Independent, on his motorcycle in downtown Canton, Ohio. Brown said that he thinks Hillary Clinton's gender will be an obstacle for some voters in the general election. "There will be people who won’t vote for her because she’s a woman," Brown said. Right: The white male vote in Canton and other Rust Belt cities and towns will play a large role in the general election.
Female candidates have long faced more resistance, and received less support from men and women alike, even though the percentage of people who say they feel comfortable voting for women has gone steadily up. In 1937, just 33 percent of Americans said they would vote for a female presidential candidate, according to Gallup's first poll on the subject. By 2015, that number had climbed to 92 percent. But giving a non-sexist answer to a pollster is easy enough; the country has almost aced that test. Actually voting for a female presidential candidate has proven to be a much bigger challenge.
Obviously, gender isn't the only factor contributing to Clinton’s struggles with white male voters. She has real shortcomings, like any male or female candidate. They were evident in her failure to put Sanders away early on in the primaries. Her national approval ratings are remarkably low for a presidential nominee, and part of that can be traced to men and women across the political spectrum who have legitimate policy disagreements with Clinton (though her likeability numbers are gendered as well; and of course some women hold subconscious biases towards female candidates, too). White men began abandoning the Democratic Party in the 1960s, for reasons that had nothing to do with gender. The trend accelerated under Ronald Reagan and shows no signs of slowing today.
Still, social science evidence, primary exit polls and my interviews with researchers and dozens of voters indicate that white men’s attitudes toward Clinton are driven by a complex mix of conscious and subconscious sexism. “The gender issue, people say it shouldn’t matter anymore,” said Nancy Mills, a member of the Democratic National Committee and longtime powerbroker in Pennsylvania politics. “But it always matters because it exists. You can’t ignore it and make it go away.”
Social psychology research tells us that everyone thinks they’re not prejudiced, and everyone is wrong. We all have built-in biases, whether we recognize them or not. I spoke to white men across Pennsylvania and Ohio last month for this story — Democrats and Republicans, old men and young guys, middle class professionals and blue-collar workers. They all insisted that they weren’t sexist. Nevertheless, many said they were uncomfortable with the thought of a female president.
“Bias in general, whether it’s directed at gender, race, or anything else, is more automatic than people think,” said Susan Fiske, a leading researcher on prejudice and stereotypes who teaches at Princeton University. “And it’s also more ambivalent than we realize. So that makes it harder to detect in ourselves.”
I should say here that my goal is not to mansplain the way that sexism works to people who already get it. Rather, it’s to work through a thorny issue at the heart of this election that many men, like myself, probably haven’t spent as much time thinking about as we should. We don’t have to if we don’t want to, which is just one of many unfair privileges that come with being a man.
It can be easy to think of bias and racism in absolute terms. You're either racist or you're not. But actually, it's not that simple.
The theory of ambivalent sexism, more than anything else, helps illustrate men’s subconscious bias against Clinton, but it’s hard to understand — at least it was for me — because it clashes with many people’s ideas about prejudice. It can be easy to think of bias and racism in absolute terms. You’re either racist or you’re not. The same thinking applied to gender up until the mid-1990s. That’s when Fiske, working with Peter Glick, a social psychologist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, published a breakthrough paper that laid out their ambivalent sexism theory. The theory, which has since been accepted by researchers around the world, helped form the basis for how experts study sexism today. Fiske and Glick separated sexism into two distinct categories. The first kind, known as “hostile” sexism, encompasses overtly negative views about women. It’s what we usually associate with gender discrimination. The second kind, known as “benevolent” sexism, describes positive attitudes and actions which men take toward women that are based, deep-down, in feelings of superiority and dominance.
“Men have ambivalent attitudes toward women that are prejudiced and paternalistic, but that are also based on love and interdependence,” Glick said. In other words, we can say we like women and really mean it while also harboring a combination of conflicting biases that we don’t even realize exist. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. For any male readers out there who might want to grapple with this some more: the next time you offer to carry your wife or girlfriend or female friend’s heavy shopping bag, or go on a drive with a member of the opposite sex and insist on doing all of the driving, try and honestly break down the gender dynamic. Sure, you mean well. But it may not be that simple.
Tommy McKelvey, 20, says he plans to vote for Trump in the fall and wants to see a female president, just not Clinton.
When it comes to politics and the 2016 presidential election, hostile sexism plays out in obvious ways. We have Trump to thank for that. He has insulted the physical appearance of Carly Fiorina, his lone female primary opponent (“Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”), and attacked FOX News host Megyn Kelly (“She had blood coming out of her wherever”) after Kelly highlighted his long track record of misogynist comments at a Republican debate. The list goes on and on from there. For Clinton, however, the root of her problem with white men stems from a central aspect of benevolent sexism, according to Glick: its use as a tool to reward women who accept traditional gender roles, and punish those who don’t. Any first lady who was discouraged from meddling in her husband’s policy work, and received lavish praise for the food at a White House function, has first-hand experience of benevolent sexism.
The more female politicians are seen as striving for power, the less they’re trusted and the more moral outrage gets directed at them.
—Terri Vescio, psychology professor at Penn State
And this is the crux of the gender issue for Clinton. An extensive body of research has shown that women who seek leadership positions often encounter resistance from both men and women if they violate gender norms by acting in stereotypically masculine ways, like being competitive, assertive and self-promotional. This is known among social psychologists as the "backlash" effect, and examples abound. For instance, though there are more women in middle-management positions in the business world today than there were in previous generations, just 4.2 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female. The backlash effect extends to politics, too. Dozens of women have run for president in the U.S., but Clinton is the only one who’s ever come close.
“The more female politicians are seen as striving for power, the less they’re trusted and the more moral outrage gets directed at them,” said Terri Vescio, a psychology professor at Penn State who studies gender bias. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she continued. “If you’re perceived as competent, you’re not perceived as warm. But if you’re liked and trusted, you’re not seen as competent.”
Women in politics know this well. “I think a woman has a hard time running as a woman,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a veteran civil and women’s rights leader who represents the District of Columbia in Congress. “Even as Donald Trump is running openly and with great aplomb as a man.”
This theoretical framework is extremely useful in decoding the real-life views of male voters like Tomi McKelvey, a 20-year-old beer store clerk who grew up in Dravosburg, a working-class town outside of Pittsburgh. McKelvey’s father is a steel mill worker, and his mother is an accountant. He was an offensive lineman on his high school football team, and moves with the gracefulness of a former athlete. McKelvey, who is white, described himself as a moderate Republican. He disagrees with Trump’s most inflammatory proposals, such as banning Muslim immigrants from entering the country. Still, he voted for Trump in the primary and is planning to back him again in the general election. He fits into Trump’s target demographic. If enough people like Tomi McKelvey vote for Trump, he has a real shot.
McKelvey told me he didn’t like or trust Clinton. He said he wants a woman to become president someday, but didn’t think that Clinton was the “right one.”
“I’m not a real Hillary fan, but I respect her,” McKelvey said.
When I asked him at another point if he viewed male and female roles in society any differently, McKelvey replied, “With a man you look for leadership and guidance. With a woman you look for companionship and nurturing. A motherly role.”
McKelvey isn’t unique in thinking this way. Many Americans have been conditioned to assign men and women prescribed gender roles. And when Clinton goes off-script, which she did a long time ago, and acts like a politician — that is to say, no different than a man — science shows that McKelvey and the rest of us are wired to judge her differently, and more negatively, than her male competition. That’s the double standard at work, and that’s the point. It is very real, and it has a profound effect on our view of men, women, and who gets to have the power.
The Iowa Democratic caucuses were a turning point in 2008. Barack Obama’s surprise victory signaled that whites would vote for a black candidate, instantly turning him into a true contender. But in 2016, Clinton had to wait much longer (until the end of the primaries) for her version of an “Iowa” moment — a primary win or key speech that the country interpreted as a critical shift in gender relations. Like Obama, Clinton also made history in Iowa, but her win didn’t symbolize a decisive change in how men view female politicians. The exit polls and Sanders’ improbably close second-place finish told the opposite story. Clinton won with women and non-white voters. But she lost the male vote in Iowa by 14 points.
An overtly gendered narrative emerged, pitting Sanders’ inspiring political “revolution” against Clinton’s plodding, eat-your-vegetables “march” to the nomination.
Iowa set the pattern for the rest of the primaries. An overtly gendered narrative emerged, pitting Sanders’ inspiring political “revolution” against Clinton’s plodding, eat-your-vegetables “march” to the nomination. There were times when Clinton allowed herself to stop and enjoy the moment. On the night of her landslide win in South Carolina in late February, Clinton took the stage at a college gym in downtown Columbia looking visibly relieved. The results made clear that Clinton would win big with minority voters, and build an insurmountable delegate lead. Super Tuesday was still one week away, but at that point her Democratic primary battle with Sanders was effectively over.
The atmosphere at her South Carolina primary night rally was celebratory. But the win represented a bittersweet tradeoff for advocates of gender equality, regardless of their political affiliation. Yes, Clinton was going to win the nomination, but largely because women and non-white voters were supporting her candidacy. White men appeared much more comfortable voting for Sanders.
That’s exactly what ended up happening. In the months that followed, Clinton won diverse states and Sanders carried predominantly white ones. The racial divide was startling. During one stretch in late March and early April, when Sanders won seven consecutive contests, the Democratic electorate in the states that he carried was on average 72 percent white. And the gender gap in white states remained constant. Sanders won the male vote by 29 points in Wisconsin, and 19 points in West Virginia, to name just two examples. Sanders developed a loyal following, but it mainly consisted of young people, including a vanguard of “Bernie Bros,” and older white men.
Ryan Geiser, an ardent Sanders supporter, takes a break from work in downtown Pittsburgh. Geiser says he believes Sanders would have fared worse in the primaries if he had faced a white man.
Not all male Sanders supporters are flagrant sexists, of course. Most aren’t. They responded to Sanders’ economic message and unvarnished campaign trail persona. He successfully cast himself as an outsider candidate despite his decades-long career in Congress, which is no small feat. The 74-year-old socialist senator from Vermont turned out to be a much better fundraiser than anybody expected. Bernie struck a nerve. At the same time, it’s not a coincidence that so many white men chose him over the female alternative.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s gender bias,” said Ryan Geiser, 29, an ardent Sanders supporter from Bellevue, Pa. Geiser, who is white, said that he didn’t base his decision on gender, but knows plenty of Sanders supporters who did. “If Sanders had gone up against a man who had the same politics as Hillary, he wouldn’t have done as well because more white men would have voted for the other guy.” There is strong evidence that subconscious bias shaped the way white men viewed Clinton in the primaries. So just imagine how much sexism could impact the general election, now that Clinton is running against Donald Trump.
In late May, I interviewed a group of five white men who get together each afternoon at the Mountaineer Cafe in Berlin, in southwestern Pennsylvania. The day we met at the diner, where a cup of coffee costs $1.55 and comes with a view of the main intersection in town, a light rain was falling outside. Don Williams, a 91-year-old retired welder, and Max Bowser, who is 75 and worked as a truck driver, were the first to arrive. They were soon joined by Elmer Altfather, 83, a retired carpenter; Ted Robb, 80, who worked for a railroad company; and Larry Pritts, 75, a retired heavy equipment operator and former member of Berlin’s town council. The longtime friends are split along party lines: two are Democrats, and three are Republicans.
“Donald Trump scares me,” Bowser, who is a Republican, said as our conversation got underway. “But we need a change, and I’m willing to give someone the right to change it.”
Williams, who is also conservative, and has followed the election closely despite his advanced age, chimed in: “We need a big boom.”
“Yeah,” said Bowser. “But not Hillary. I don’t like the way she lies. They’ve caught her in so many lies.”
Bowser, like nearly every Republican voter I interviewed for this story, pointed to the Benghazi scandal, which took place on Clinton’s watch as secretary of state and has haunted her political career ever since. House Republicans have spent years investigating the terrorist attacks, which killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, and grilled Clinton about her response to the incident in a memorable made-for-TV hearing last fall.
The hearing was Washington political theater at its finest. One week before Clinton was slated to testify, Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, said on FOX News that the investigation was politically motivated. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a special Benghazi committee,” McCarthy said, and “what are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” At the hearing, Republicans struggled to provide evidence of a Clinton-led cover-up of the attacks, and Clinton appeared calm through nearly 11 hours of questioning. The press ruled that Republicans were the real “losers” and Clinton the real “winner.” I covered the first several hours. At one point early on, Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois was delivering a question from the dais when he noticed Clinton look down at a briefing book on the table in front of her. Cabinet members who testify before Congress routinely reference their notes during hearings, and are never called out for it. But Roskam stopped speaking and said, in an even tone that masked his condescension, “I can pause while you’re reading your notes from your staff.” Clinton looked up and answered, “I can do more than one thing at a time, congressman. Thanks.”
There’s a possibility I would vote for a woman. But not her.
—Max Bowser, retired truck driver
In the diner, Bowser said that Benghazi stands for everything he finds wrong with Clinton. “There’s a possibility I would vote for a woman. But not her,” he added.
Robb, one of the group’s two Democrats, interrupted to say that he felt the same way. “The only one who comes to mind who I think would be a good president, a woman, would be Condoleezza Rice,” the former secretary of state under George W. Bush.
“I agree,” Bowser said.
“That’s the only one,” Robb continued. “Basically, I guess I just don’t trust Hillary. That’s about as straight as I can put it.”
Later on, Robb said that gender discrimination was no longer an issue in the farm and coal towns of southwestern Pennsylvania, if it ever had been to begin with. “You’re looking at an area where women didn’t have to worry about equal rights. They had the right to milk the cow and drive the tractor. My mother would have said that she had equal rights.”
I asked if that extended to politics. Did the area have many female elected officials?
“We’ve had some,” said Larry Pritts, the former town councilman.
“We had a good female commissioner” once, Williams offered.
Pritts, who is supporting Trump, nodded. “We’re not prejudiced towards women here,” he added. “They pretty much work alongside the men.” I checked later, and found that the seven-member Berlin Borough Council currently has one female member.
Mitt Romney rolled the dice with white people, and white men in particular, in 2012. He was unpopular with everyone else, so he had to rely on his political base. Romney won 62 percent of the white male vote — and he still lost to Obama by four points. The implications were clear. As the white share of the electorate keeps shrinking, Republicans who dismiss the growing influence of women and non-white voters and continue to rely on white men will have an increasingly narrow path to the presidency. Trump ignored this fact from the very start of his campaign, when he rode an escalator down to the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on June 16, 2015, announced that he was running for the most influential job in the world, and then called Mexicans rapists. Since then Trump has insulted virtually every demographic group in the country. Just last week, Trump said a federal judge presiding over a civil fraud lawsuit against one of his businesses couldn’t do his job fairly because of his “Mexican heritage.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican official in the country, said Trump’s comments were racist.
Trump’s strategy is a massive gamble. On its face it seems like a weird mistake, coming from an accomplished salesman who knows that the customer is always right. The last time Americans elected someone who had never held elected office before, they went with Dwight Eisenhower, a man who entered the race with high name recognition thanks to his role as supreme commander of the Allied Forces during World War II. Trump starred on “The Apprentice.” But anything is possible, so Democrats have to take the threat that he could be elected president — thanks to a wave of support from white men — seriously. “The white male vote is going to decide the race,” John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pa. said. “If Trump can pull Reagan voters, he’s going to win. And we can’t let that happen.”
The Clinton camp is prepared for a grueling general election. In an interview with PBS NewsHour the day after she clinched the Democratic nomination, Clinton said she plans to ignore Trump’s personal attacks against her. But Trump is “attempting to drive wedges between and among Americans,” Clinton added, “and I am not going to stand by and be silent as he tries to do that.” Earlier this year, Priorities USA Action, the main Super PAC backing Clinton, and other organizations began running ads highlighting Trump’s sexist rhetoric. “That will be a continuing part of the race,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster at Priorities USA who served as Clinton’s chief strategist in the final months of her 2008 run for the White House.
Predicting presidential elections is a fraught enterprise. One of the best models belongs to Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. His research shows that the three deciding factors are a sitting president’s approval rating in the summer months before an election; second-quarter economic growth in an election year; and how many terms the party in power has been in the White House. By those standards, Clinton is in good but not great shape right now. But unforeseen forces exist that can sometimes upend the best prediction models, and Trump is the very definition of an unforeseen force.
As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “there are known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” Hillary Clinton is a known entity. And it’s clear that Trump needs to outperform Romney by a lot with white men to make up for his historically low level of support from women and non-white voters. Most of his votes will come from Republicans. But Trump is going to make a gendered appeal to independent and Democratic white men as well, and it’s impossible to predict how that will go. We’ve never had a woman at the top of a Democratic or Republican ticket before. Gender is the great known unknown of the 2016 election.
To some, the choice between a former first lady, senator and secretary of state and a real estate developer-turned-reality T.V. star will feel like a no-brainer. But for others it won’t be that easy. They’ll have doubts and fears, if they don’t already. They’ll be concerned about Clinton’s policies, her personality, her email server and paid speeches on Wall Street. In the end, a certain percentage of white men aren’t going to vote for Clinton in November, and if it’s a large enough number Clinton is going to lose. And some of those men will not vote for Clinton simply because she’s a woman, though they may not acknowledge that to pollsters or even themselves.
Sign up for the PBS NewsHour Politics Newsletter
Receive political analysis on Friday from Mark Shields and David Brooks and on Monday from Amy Walter and Tamara Keith. Also get exclusive content from the PBS NewsHour politics team.