Aida Elena Molina, a 49-year-old independent voter in Merced, Calif., went to bed on Nov. 8, 2016, with a smile on her face, thinking that she would wake up the next morning to news of the nation’s first female President. Of course, that was not the case. “I saw the news and I was crying. I thought to myself, gosh, I’m never going to see a woman become President,” she told TIME over the phone.
Fifty-six percent of American women think it’s unlikely a woman will become President in 2020, according to a national poll of adult women conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 2, 2018 by TIME and SSRS. But while women as a whole were not expectant of a female President, a majority of Democratic women (53%) and many women of color were more optimistic about the possibility. Fifty-five percent of Hispanic women and half of black women said they think a woman is likely to be elected President in 2020, while just 38% of white women said so.
“If we had a woman President, she would be a little more empathetic and likely to do things for the good of all. It would mean so much,” said Molina, who is half white and half Hispanic. “We do have so much power, but it seems to get squashed all the time.”
Only 35% of Republican women think Americans will elect a female Commander in Chief in 2020 — consistent with the expectation of many that President Donald Trump will run for a second term and win. “I don’t know if our country is ready for a female president,” Dawn Zimmerman, a 57-year-old Republican in Omaha, Neb., wrote in an email to TIME. “I would like a female to take the reins. However, I don’t feel most of the country agrees with me.” Zimmerman added that she would like to see Trump reelected.
Heading into a contentious midterm Election Day — two years into the Trump era, which has brought about divisive nation-wide conversations surrounding race, gender and issues like gun control and health care — women voters and politicians are under a microscope.
Black women voters, a highly mobilized group heading into the midterms, reported the biggest increase in political engagement since the 2016 presidential election compared to white and Hispanic women (38% of black women said they’ve become more engaged), and the highest numbers planning to vote in the midterms (78%). Black women were also more likely than other groups to have changed their minds about national issues since 2016, at 52%.
“I did not used to think we had poor leadership,” Theresa Golden, an unaffiliated 58-year-old black woman living in Xenia, Ohio, wrote to TIME in an email. “Now, however, I find our leadership at all three levels of government poor.”
Many Democratic women (42%, compared to 35% of Republicans and 22% of independents) are also revved up going into the midterms, consistent with expectations for a year in which Republicans hold the House, Senate and Presidency.
“I am more engaged now due to all the hate and violence happening — I feel as result of Trump spewing hate,” Stephanie Hill, a 60-year-old Democrat in St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote to TIME in an email. Still, more than half of Democratic women said their level of engagement has stayed the same or decreased, which may be a sign of discouragement.
Hill is receiving social security disability benefits but struggling financially. “This is why this election is so important to me. I now understand what many Americans are going through,” she wrote. Like her, the poll found that across all political affiliations, all age groups, all income levels and most racial identities, women are most concerned about the same national issue: affordable health care. Given a list of 21 national issues and the option to select more than one, 45% of Republican women, 46% of Democrat women and 51% of independent women said affordable health care is an issue that matters most to them.
Kelli Helminiak, a 43-year-old high school government teacher, plans to vote in her home state of Iowa based strongly on health care policy. Helminiak described struggling with the cost of a new insurance plan offered by her husband’s company after the Affordable Care Act, and said that while she’s concerned about the Republican party’s failure to repeal Obamacare, she will still vote Republican. “I do have faith in Trump to continue pushing for reform,” she wrote to TIME in an email. “I used to hold more stock in positive personal attributes, but after supporting countless candidates that were ‘nice guys,’ I’m ready for someone who isn’t afraid of offending some people if it means the job is going to get done.”
After affordable health care, Republican poll respondents’ next biggest concern was reducing illegal immigration (same as for white women). For the Democrats, it was gun control (same as for Hispanic women). Black women were the only group to rank affordable health care second to another issue: racial justice.
Golden ranked racial justice as the most pressing national issue. “America formed into a great capitalist nation with alleged democracy from the blood, sweat and struggles of the enslaved and impoverished melting pot,” she wrote. “What better way to control the 99% than to create unjustified hatred for other human beings based on melanin?” She stressed the importance of voting. “The fights for the right to vote proved a bloody, deadly process. Why would I disrespect and dishonor the legacy afforded me?”
As national issues like racial justice and women’s rights have been debated across the media, the White House has maintained a combative relationship with the press. Poll respondents considered the impact of the government and the media on women’s lives, slightly favoring the media. Most women said the government neither supports nor harms them, but Republican women were more likely to say it’s more supportive rather than harmful to women (37% said so). Democratic and independent women were more likely to say the government is more harmful than supportive (36% and 29% said so, respectively) — possibly a reflection of the current division of power between the parties. Only 24% of women overall said they think the government mostly supports women.
When asked the same question about the role of the media, 32% of all respondents said it mostly supports women (38% of Democrats, 34% of Republicans and 25% of independents said the same). About a quarter of all respondents said both that the government and the media mostly harm women.
The midterms come a little over a year after a major media story — the sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein — and the #MeToo movement took hold across the country. Since its start, the movement has reached across fields and led to the resignations of accused political leaders like Democratic Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers Jr., and Republican Reps. Patrick Meehan and Trent Franks. (Franken, Conyers, Franks, Meehan and Weinstein all denied some of the allegations against them.)
Heading into the midterm elections, poll respondents reflected on the impact of the national debate surrounding sexual harassment and misconduct. Thirty-seven percent of Democrats, 35% of Republicans and 37% of independents polled said they have experienced workplace sexual harassment in their lifetimes. Many respondents who said they experienced sexual harassment also said they would not vote for a candidate who had been accused.
Molina described being sexually harassed early in her career. “I find it very hard to stomach any man who is a sexual predator,” she said. “Voting for a man who has been accused of an act for which there is evidence is akin to condoning that act.” Molina added she is trying to vote for women candidates whenever possible.
Kathy Hixon, a 54-year-old Democrat in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., described being verbally sexually harassed on public transportation many years ago. “I probably would not vote for an accused candidate unless he can prove otherwise,” she wrote to TIME in an email. “I know that’s not fair, but in this day and age, you can never be too careful.”
Helminiak said she has experienced incidents that some might consider harassment, but she wasn’t bothered by. She said she might vote for someone accused of sexual misconduct, depending on the situation. “It has to be a case by case basis,” she said over the phone. “I can’t even go so far as to say if someone was accused to rape — it has be more than just the accusation.”
Regardless of politics, many respondents agreed that across the board, things could be better — and that women can and should have a hand in making change. “Women have so much to offer,” Katie Elder, a 38-year-old independent voter and mother of four in Panama City Beach, Fla., wrote in an email to TIME. Her town was ravaged by Hurricane Michael, and she spends her days commuting back and forth from her home, which is missing its ceilings, and the place where she and her family are temporarily living. Elder is stunned by the kindness and generosity of volunteers who have helped her community, particularly a group of Methodist women from Louisiana who lived through Hurricane Katrina and have brought formula and diapers to families short on supplies.
“If I believed everything my Democrat friends said to me, I’d believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket. And if I believed everything my Republican friends said, it would be the same,” Elder said over the phone, choosing to feel hopeful. “People want to help. People want to have a country that stands together. And women get things done.”
This poll was conducted between Aug. 29 and Sept. 2, 2018, surveyed 1,003 adult women in the U.S. and had a margin of error or plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
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