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Reconciling Sexism and Women’s Support for Republican Candidates: A Look at Gender, Class, and Whiteness in the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Races


Much of the gender gap literature focuses on women’s greater average liberalism relative to men. This approach masks considerable heterogeneity in political identity and behavior among women based on race, class, and other key socio-demographic characteristics. In the 2016 Presidential contest, political divisions among women were evident in exit polling, which demonstrated that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump. This was not an anomaly but reflects a more long-standing distinction between white women and women of other racial and ethnic identifications. In this paper, we draw on intersectionality and system justification theory as frameworks for exploring the distinctive political behavior of white women. Using data from the 2012 and 2016 American National Election Studies, we evaluate the factors that attracted white women voters to the GOP and kept them in the fold in spite of expectations that sexism in the campaign would drive women away from the party during the 2016 Presidential race. Our analyses show that many white women endorse sexist beliefs, and that these beliefs were strong determinants of their vote choice in 2016, more so than in 2012. Our findings also point to important divisions among white women based on educational attainment and household income in terms of both the endorsement of sexism and vote choice. These results shed new light on white women’s political behavior and qualify the existing gender gap literature in important ways, offering new insights into the ways whiteness, gender, and class intersect to shape political behavior.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. 1.

    See Table A2 in the Online Appendix for complete descriptive data on voters in 2012 and 2016. No shifts were observed in vote choice among white Americans generally or among college-educated Americans. The primary change is the one depicted in Fig. 2.

  2. 2.

    We selected this significance level because adjusted Wald tests offer a conservative test of the change in coefficient size for logit models, see Williams (2009).

  3. 3.

    The measures for hostile sexism and perceived discrimination against women are correlated at − 0.15 (− 0.09 for women and − 0.20 for men) in 2012 and − 0.20 (− 0.17 for women and − 0.22 for men) in 2016.

  4. 4.

    We also used 101-point feeling thermometers for both Republican presidential candidates to determine whether candidate evaluations were more polarized for some groups of men and women. Tables A4 and A6 of the Online Appendix demonstrates that the results for vote choice reported in Table 3 are consistent with feelings towards Romney and Trump.

  5. 5.

    Replication materials are available at: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/QHMXAQ.

  6. 6.

    We include these covariates based on work by Barnes and Cassese (2017), which demonstrates these factors are important sources of variation among women, in order to rule out competing explanations for our findings.

  7. 7.

    Income is only modestly correlated with hostile sexism at − 0.11 in 2012 and − 0.15 in 2016, and with perceived discrimination against women at − 0.13 in 2012 and − 0.07 in 2016. .

  8. 8.

    Table A6 in the Online Appendix demonstrates that our results are also robust when controlling for the urban/rural residency of respondents; rurality was only measured for the face-to-face subsample of the ANES.


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Correspondence to Erin C. Cassese.

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Cassese, E.C., Barnes, T.D. Reconciling Sexism and Women’s Support for Republican Candidates: A Look at Gender, Class, and Whiteness in the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Races. Polit Behav 41, 677–700 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9468-2

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  • Gender gap
  • Intersectionality
  • System justification theory
  • Hostile sexism
  • Voting behavior
  • Class
  • Whiteness