Revisiting the Gender Gap in 2020: Race and the Gender Gap

This blog post is part of our “Revisiting the Gender Gap in 2020” symposium. In this blog series we are interviewing experts about the gender gap in American politics in an effort to shed light on how these gaps may impact the 2020 presidential election. These posts will be curated conversations, moderated by email by CAWP faculty and staff, with gender and politics experts intended to illuminate the meaning of the gender gap, what we understand and do not understand about women’s political behavior, and most importantly to address questions posed in the media about gender and the presidential election. The interviews will be lightly edited for length and clarity.

Analyzing gender differences in partisan identification, policy positions, and vote choice can easily fall into the trap of treating women voters as a monolithic group. In the conversation below, I asked three experts – Drs. Natalie Masuoka (University of California – Los Angeles), Anna Sampaio (Santa Clara University), and Wendy Smooth (The Ohio State University) to reflect on this tendency and its implications for public and scholarly understanding of gender dynamics in the 2020 election. Their responses challenge us all to evaluate voting behavior in this year’s election with more attention to nuance and diversity – especially racial and ethnic diversity – among and between women and men in the electorate. They also illuminate the value of applying an intersectional lens to popular groupings of voters like “suburban women” to interrogate their accuracy and strategic motives behind their use.

Dittmar: When the gender gap in partisan affiliation, policy attitudes, and vote choice are discussed in the media, rarely are there any mentions of how race and ethnicity shape this gap. How do race and ethnicity shape the contours of the gender gap? What do we miss by not paying attention to these nuances?

Masuoka: The study of the gender gap has served an important purpose by highlighting the consistent political differences found between men and women. I think it is first important to recognize the value of this literature for the study of American political behavior. However, there are two critiques against this literature which Jane Junn and I first articulated in our recent article. First, like much of the general study of American political behavior, most gender gap studies rely on data using national samples that are overwhelmingly made up of white respondents. Race is often “controlled for” in the statistical model, which effectively excludes any consideration that there may be important variation within the gender gap by race. In addition, this also privileges those patterns demonstrated by white respondents since methodologically speaking they make up the overwhelming majority of the survey sample. As a result, there is the implicit assumption that those patterns found among white Americans universally apply to communities of color. 

The gender gap literature is also guilty of this tendency by making the assumption that the gender gap functions the same across the entire population. But the general conclusions made by the gender gap literature best summarize what we find among whites and is less applicable to communities of color. Looking at ANES data over time, you can see that the gender gap is more narrow among Blacks and Latinos compared to whites while an analysis of Asian American survey data finds that the gender gap among Asian Americans is inconsistent across surveys.

Moreover, the established literature on the longitudinal trend of the gender gap reports that the size of the gender gap increased ever year between 1980 through 2000 and then has varied in magnitude since. If you disaggregate respondents by race you find that this is a pattern only found among whites. In contrast, the gender gap for Blacks and Latinas has been more stable across time and we find no consistent longitudinal pattern for Asian Americans.

The second critique is that the primary emphasis on the magnitude of difference between men and women has, in some ways, generated an incorrect assumption about the politics of women. While women are indeed more Democratic leaning relative to men, this does not at the same time mean that women are majority Democratic. If we disaggregate women voters by race, the majority of white women have voted Republican in all presidential elections in the modern era except two (1964 and 1996). In contrast, women of color are majority Democratic with nearly all (90%+) Black women voting Democratic in all presidential elections since 1980. Latina and Asian American women have leaned Democratic historically but in the recent decade have become clear Democratic majorities. In this way, women of color pull the mean of women’s partisanship towards the Democrats because women of color are overwhelming Democratic and represent a growing share of the women voters. This means that aggregated together, women voters appear to be majority Democratic. The Republican tendencies of white women is overlooked and this can lead to errors in how we theorize about women’s political attitudes.

Smooth: Gender gap politics force us to first consider the persistent significance of women’s voting overall and how that makes the gender gap itself a fascinating aspect of electoral politics. Our attention to women’s high voter turnout numbers and the differences between how women and men vote and generally demarcate frontrunner status to the candidate gaining women’s support is what we commonly refer to as the gender gap. What we don’t commonly consider is the extent to which the gender gap as a political phenomenon is highly informed by race.

In the wake of the historic 2008 presidential election which ushered into office America’s first Black president, the political mobilization efforts of Black women were undeniable. In that election cycle, we saw record turnout among Blacks and media pundits were quick to credit the results as an artifact of the historic moment. True, the ability to move a Black president along with his Black wife and daughters into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to call the White House home excited and thrilled Black voters, Black women voters in particular. Media coverage heavily credited “Black voter turnout” for the nation realizing that moment. Many opined that the chance to make history was the sole driver of this uptick in Black voter turnout in 2008. But again in 2012, we saw similar groundbreaking participation among Black voters emerge even without the motivation of changing the course of history. In both 2008 and 2012, news outlets needed help to see that it was not just the “Black vote,” but that Black women voters in particular were driving “Black voter turnout.” In fact, in both those elections, Black women exceeded every other group in the electorate in terms of turnout. Not only did they turnout in high numbers, they nearly exclusively supported the Democratic Party candidate. As I wrote in a 2013 National Review of Black Politics article, “More black women are voting, and black women support Democratic candidates at higher rates. This is not a new phenomenon, but certainly an underappreciated feature of black politics.” While Black women’s voter participation rates dropped in 2016, they continued to outpace Black men in support of Democratic candidates.

With the high voter participation rate among Black women, we also realize two significant race-gender distinctions. First, in very election since 1984, Black women have outpaced Black men in voter turnout. Second, in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, we also see Black women supporting the Democratic Party candidate in slightly higher numbers than their Black male counterparts, but in 2016 the Black gender gap solidifies as a nine-point gap between Black men and women’s support for the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton. The appeal of the Republican party to some Black men is indeed a question worth future research and examination in terms of what factors and policies separate Black men and women’s voting preferences. Gender differences among Black voters in both voter turnout and support for the Democratic Party candidate are ripe areas of future research.

Sampaio: Among Latinas/os/xs there are multiple gender gaps which manifest much differently in the population than among white women and men. There is a significant gender gap in Latina/o/x voting behavior with Latinas driving increases in both registration and turnout across all national origin groups within the Latina/o/x electorate. Despite the role Latinas play in the mobilization of Latina/o/x voters, their interests, policy attitudes and preferences are often minimized or dismissed entirely in national campaigns and they are rarely the focal point of outreach efforts. A notable exception to this during the 2020 election cycle occurred during Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign when she launched a targeted outreach effort entitled “Latinas Fight, Latinas Win.”

An even more significant gender gap among Latinas/os/xs exists in policy attitudes, and vote choice with Latinas historically favoring more liberal candidates and policies than Latino males. This gender gap - what Christina Bejarano has coined a “modern gender gap” - leads to a difference in voting behavior as Latinas are more likely to support liberal Democrats and progressive policies than Latinos. However, unlike white voters, this does not translate into significant differences in partisan affiliation as both Latinas and Latinos overwhelming favor Democratic candidates over Republicans. 

With over 32 million eligible voters in 2020, Latinas/os/xs are projected to become the largest minority voting population this year. However, without a recognition of the differences in voting behavior and gender gaps in policies and candidates among Latinas/os/xs I worry that campaigns will once again ignore the centrality of Latinas to mobilizing those voters, resulting in losses for Democrats in key states such as Arizona, Florida, California, Colorado and Texas. In short, in a year when Democratic and progressive candidates and issues stand to make historical gains or face devastating defeats, failing to account for and attend to these racialized differences in the gender gap can make all the difference.

Masuoka: There is not much research on the gender gap among Asian Americans since reliable survey data is not as readily available. Some of the preliminary research I’ve recently conducted on surveys collected between 2000 and 2016 found that there is not a consistent gender gap among Asian Americans across these surveys.  In some surveys there is a large gender gap while in other surveys there is no gender difference in partisan vote. It is not clear why we don’t find a consistent gender gap pattern among Asian Americans, but it could be the case that a more nuanced analysis is needed. For example, Professor Sampaio’s discussion of Latino voters shows that analyses of public policy attitudes could demonstrate gender differences among Asian Americans. But I do think it is important to note that while Asian Americans lean Democratic, research also shows that a large share of the population decline to identify with a political party. This might play a role in explaining why there may not be a consistent gender gap pattern across surveys.

Dittmar: You have each made clear the particular dangers – politically and intellectually – of ignoring the racial differences that underly the gender gap as it has been broadly defined as the difference between women and men. But each of you – and especially Wendy and Anna – still note the important gender differences within groups, specifically Black and Latina/o/x voters. With this in mind, would you say that there is political and/or intellectual value in the concept of the “gender gap” in partisan affiliation, policy attitudes, and vote choice, were it to be assessed and leveraged in ways that are attentive to the racial differences therein?

Smooth: As we all point out, we must take into account the ways in which race, ethnicity and other identity markers inform the gender gap to make it an effect communication tool. With an intersectional lens applied, the gender gap frame continues to offer an important way to examine the ways politics is both racialized and gendered. An intersectional lens offers scholars precision in the ways we address political phenomena and in the case of the gender gap we see all these variations unfold. As Anna points out and I agree, understanding Latinas and Black women in particular as the drivers of voter turnout in their communities is critical to advancing social and economic policies that speak most directly to their needs. As they are leaders in mobilizing and voter turnout for Democratic Party candidates, they should see the fruits of their labor and support in the policies advanced by that party.

 I am also drawn to all the research questions that emerge when look at Asian American voters, since – as Natalie explains – the voting patterns are more varied. There is room for a wealth of research questions that can add to how we approach and conceptualize Asian American voting. What kinds of other identity markers make sense to examine that will help us understand patterns and trends among Asian Americans.

 In thinking about the patterns that we see developing across several presidential cycles among Black and Latinx voters, it is evident that we need to build greater understanding regarding social and economic positioning and policy perceptions of men of color in relation to women of color. For example, in 2016 it is true that Trump appealed to a larger number (still negligible numbers overall) of Black men than recent Republican candidates. We could benefit from understanding what specifically appealed to those men and whether we are poised to see greater differences in the ways Black men and women view politics and policy issues.

Sampaio: There is still significant value to examining the gender gap and its multiple manifestations in everything from political inclusion and participation to partisan affiliation, policy attitudes, and vote choice because we know that gender is still a salient way in which identities are formed, distributed, and performed and, by extension, there are still incredibly important differences in social, economic, and political opportunities that are mediated by gender. Having said that, it is vital that we recognize that gender exists in relationship to context and history and is co-constituted by other powerful social and political identities - including but not limited to race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, and citizenship. As I've demonstrated in my own research on immigration, gender, race, and class are often co-constitutive in political processes and institutions and a full accounting of their impacts can only be achieved via an intersectional mode of analysis attuned to their multiple manifestations. In other words, studying the gender gap matters because gender matters, but a full understanding of the way the gender gap matters can only be achieved when political scientists and reporters adopt an intersectional lens that is properly attuned to the ways that gender interacts with race and ethnicity to manifest differently in the lives of women of color.

Masuoka: Offering a critique of our existing assumptions on the gender gap should not necessarily be seen as a call to question the intellectual value of the gender gap. Rather it is a push to recognize the nuance that insights from the race, ethnicity and politics scholarship bring to our understanding on the role of gender on political attitudes and behavior. Race and gender intersect in important ways but there is a tendency in both academia and the mainstream media to try and isolate the effects of gender separately from the effects of race. A consideration of how the gender gap varies across Asian Americans, Blacks, Latinos and whites provides an excellent example for seeing the intersection of race and gender.

One of the most important lessons I think should be drawn from this conversation is that voters of color are more constrained in their political choices compared to white voters, which provides a useful way of explaining why the magnitude of the gender gap varies across these four racial groups. By “constraint” I refer to longstanding arguments related to party capture; due to the racial polarization found in political party agendas, voters of color really only have the option either to support the Democratic party or abstain from voting. Even though the politics of women and men vary within communities of color, there is less opportunity for them to express those political differences when it comes to voting in today’s two-party system. In contrast, since political parties are ultimately only competing for the support of white voters, white women and men have more opportunity to vote for the party whose agenda best matches their own politics.  This allows for more obvious sorting among whites while voters of color are restricted to supporting the Democratic party.

Dittmar: In the 2020 election cycle, a lot of attention has been paid to “suburban housewives”? What do you make of the focus on this portion of the electorate and is there an implied racial element when we discuss “suburban women"?

Smooth: Race emerges as an all too important, yet under-examined aspect of how we discuss the “women’s vote.” The gender gap is significantly energized by the voting preferences of women of color who as I’ve indicated tend to support Democratic Party candidates. To the extent that “women” are seen as driving support for Democratic Party candidates emerging as frontrunners, we must recognize that we are really talking about women of color voter preferences. As is now well documented among political scientists (see June 2016) the racial gap among women voters is evident in every election cycle since the 1952 except for only two elections. Inattentiveness to race forces errors in how we understand women’s voting patterns prompting the kind of shock and surprise of 2016 when we saw the stark contrasts between women of color and white women voters. Hence, we must read discussions of “suburban housewives” much like the “soccer moms” of previous election cycles against this reality and see them as euphemisms that discuss white women voters.

If we are interested in real stories in 2020 that capture significant groups of voters who decide elections by their rates of turnout, we would tell more interesting stories by fashioning conversations and political frames that address the voter turnout potential of women of color voters. We might use frames that address their rationales for voting like the “Covid-19 Moms” or the “Breonna Taylor Voters.” Candidates of course, but pundits and researchers as well come much closer to capturing the robust dimensions of the women’s vote in 2020 with these frames.

Masuoka: It could be the case that “suburban” is an implicit reference to white women voters.  Research on American stereotypes show that the “urban” label is a trope for racial minority neighborhoods. By referencing “urban” areas, politicians and others are implicitly emphasizing race without having to explicitly mention groups like blacks. We could then generate a hypothesis that references to “suburban” is an implicit labeling for whites since the assumption is that communities of color reside in urban spaces. But if the intent is to discuss white women, then the use of the “suburban” label may be an inaccurate reference. Today, the “suburbs” are increasingly more racially diverse, given the fundamental changes to residential patterns that has been occurring over the past few decades. In what is often referred to as “gentrification” has encouraged more whites and those with higher incomes to live closer to the city center and a higher cost of living has pushed many communities of color out to suburban areas. Moreover, Asian American and Latino immigrants increasingly demonstrate a preference for suburban neighborhoods further diversifying suburban areas. So the American suburb might not be populated by a particular demographic group as we might stereotypically think.

In this way, I would challenge the assumption that a coherent “suburban women” group really does exist. “Suburban women” represents an increasingly racially diverse group which means that they would not hold the same life experiences and thus shared interests that make them a bloc vote.  But if the intent is to target white women, I wonder why we are simply not living in a moment when the narrative simply refers to “white women” rather than using an indirect reference?

Sampaio: Let’s be clear – when the term “suburban housewives” and calls to “protect our suburban communities” are circulated in the Trump campaign they are unmistakable forms of strategic racism or “dog whistles” meant to simultaneously invoke racialized fear among white voters and to mobilize middle class white women and men based on that fear. The 2016 election cycle was replete with these racist messages which target racial and religious minorities and promote a deeply racialized discourse that demonizes and criminalizes them as unwanted and by extension un-American while seeding the worst fears of white Americans of population extinction, cultural irrelevancy, economic competition and ultimately racial resentment. Thanks to Trump’s re-election efforts and much of the GOP leadership, several of the 2020 campaigns are following in these footsteps with calls for “law and order,” and claims to protect “America’s heritage”- both terms that circulated widely at the Republican National Convention (RNC).


Dr. Natalie Masuoka is Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at the University of California – Los Angeles. She is the author of Multiracial Identity and Racial Politics in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2017) and The Politics of Belonging: Race, Public Opinion and Immigration (University of Chicago Press, 2013, with Jane Junn).

Dr. Anna Sampaio is Chair and Professor of Ethnic Studies and Political Science at Santa Clara University. She is the author of Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants: Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security (Temple University Press, 2015) and co-editor of Transnational Latino/a Communities: Politics, Processes, and Cultures (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, with Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez).

Dr. Wendy Smooth is Associate Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at The Ohio State University. Her work appears in edited volumes such as Situating Intersectionality: Politics, Policy and PowerGender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American PoliticsLegislative Women: Getting Elected, Getting Ahead; and Still Lifting, Still Climbing: Black Women’s Contemporary Activism.


Kelly Dittmar

Kelly Dittmar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is the co-author of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) (with Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll) and author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).