Every election cycle, the media fixates on two demographic groups that they claim are central to the success of either political party and towards whom they should pitch their messages. One is white working class men and the other is white middle-class women. Why these two groups are singled out for special attention is a mystery to me but seems to be based on the assumption that they are the most persuadable to switch from one party to another and hence worth targeting. I am not fully convinced that they are more persuadable than other groups since such analyses are usually based on historical data and may not be currently applicable.
For example, the conventional wisdom is that white working class men used to be a strong Democratic constituency that switched to the Republicans following the civil rights era of the 1960ss while white middle-class women used to be strongly Republican but now are peeling away from them. But the key fact is that both targeted groups are white and not poor, which explains why the concerns of the poor and minorities tend to get put on the backburner during election time, which in the US is pretty much all the time.
For white middle-class women especially the media seems to come up with an inexhaustible list of cutesy labels consisting of taking a description that signifies a stereotypical middle class lifestyle and concerns and adding ‘moms’ to it, such as ‘soccer moms’, ‘security moms’, and this year’s ‘suburban moms’. What’s next? Yoga moms? Coffee shop moms? Volvo moms?
The ugliest part of Trump’s re-election strategy is his racist appeal to this group that he refers to as ‘suburban housewives’, a highly anachronistic term that harkens back to the image in the fifties of middle class women living in lily-white suburbs, wearing aprons and baking, cleaning the homes, and taking care of the children while their husbands support the family. Trump is trying to make them fearful that a Biden victory will lead to people of color moving in next to them. This was the fear that was prevalent in the Jim Crow era when segregated suburbs were the norm but were being threatened by the civil rights movement and Supreme Court decisions that outlawed the red-lining of areas to keep black people out.
But things have changed a lot since then, as Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who specializes in looking at suburban voters, points out.
Taking a step back, there’s always been this attempt to characterize a certain set of women voters—whether it’s “soccer moms,” or “waitress moms,” or “security moms”—this kind of caricature of a woman voter who lives in the suburbs, has children, is very concerned about “kitchen table” issues like their children’s health, but also very worried about security and keeping their kids safe. And there’s a notion that there’s a particular set of issues that suburban women uniquely care about because of them being moms: They’re a little more economically liberal, if you will, but more socially conservative, and they are all sort of similar to each other.
But that’s never been true. And it couldn’t be less true now.
Suburban women are not this monolithic bloc of voters. There are really big differences based on religiosity, education level, race. Some are married, some are not married; some have kids, some don’t. The assumption is that suburban women are all white, but there’s a just huge diversity within this group — demographically, and in terms of opinions and experiences.
The way Trump thinks about what suburban women care about is through a very traditional gender lens, which is not anywhere near where we are. When you’ve got 60 percent of white college-educated women voting for Biden, those traditional ways of appealing to women — which were a little suspect to begin with — just feel out of touch.
“When Trump referred to suburban women as ‘housewives,’ it was telling,” Greenberg said. “When you look at the ways they’re trying to appeal to this archetypal woman voter, it is so rooted in a fairly traditional way of thinking about women’s experiences and what women care about. And it misses the mark in some pretty profound ways.”
One of those ways: Trump’s focus on “law and order” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests just doesn’t seem to resonate with suburban women in the polls and focus groups Greenberg has seen. And, in fact, it reminds many of them of one of the things they dislike most about the president: The sense that he’s inflaming racial divisions.
“People come to this narrative already in a place of being unhappy with how Trump has dealt with the issue—that rather than bringing people together and having a reckoning to try to move us forward, he, in fact, has sort of made it worse,” said Greenberg. “Like, there’s no monolith of white women in the suburbs who are like locking their doors and putting on their burglar alarms, scared of invading hordes. It’s just not the way they think about their lives.”
The Trump campaign is clearly banking that running a racist campaign as if this was the 1950s, where he is the challenger and not the incumbent, will be enough to win. He is running as George Wallace.