When it comes to presidential elections, women often exercise their prerogative to change their minds.
An analysis of their preferences, based on research by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, in elections dating back to 1980 shows that their opinion of incumbents often varies significantly from their view of candidate as challengers four years earlier.
This history might be instructive as the nation anxiously awaits the outcome of this fall’s frenetically contested presidential race between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
The variation in female voters’ perspective often has at least as much to do with who the challenger is as the perceived performance of the incumbent.
To wit, in 1980, women favored challenger Ronald Reagan by a single percentage point over Jimmy Carter, who had run neck-and-neck with Gerald Ford among women in 1976.
When Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, however, women enthusiastically supported him by 12 points. His opponent, mundane Democrat Walter Mondale, lost in a landslide.
In 1988, when Reagan was finishing his second term and preparing to leave office, women were split in their opinions of Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, favoring Bush by a single percentage point. Four years later, they’d had enough of the first Bush, leaving him to read their lips (and their ballots) and favoring Bill Clinton by a robust 8 points.
In 1996, women felt even better about Clinton, the Democratic incumbent, backing him by a whopping 16 percentage points over Bob Dole.
To that point, women had voted in favor of the election winner in five straight cycles, but the streak was stopped in 2000 when they strongly supported Al Gore (+11). Dating back to 1992, women have voted without fail for the Democrat.
In 2000, Gore won the popular vote but lost the contested electoral outcome to Republican George W. Bush, marking just the fourth time that the major party candidate with fewer overall votes won the White House.
By 2004, women, perhaps swayed by his response to 9/11, showed stronger support for the younger Bush.
They liked challenger John Kerry just a little better — 3 percentage points. But Bush won again.
Women (as well as Black voters) essentially carried Barack Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012, boosting him by 13 points the first time and 11 the second.
That brings us to Trump, who gained the Oval Office in 2016 despite a 12-point disadvantage among women against Hillary Clinton and despite losing the popular vote by about 3 million.
With the 2020 election just five weeks away, polls show Biden with a commanding lead among women ranging from 12 points in a Fox News poll to 22 points in an NPR/PBS/Marist University poll. Trump, meanwhile, has relatively meager leads of 4 points (NPR/PBS/ Marist) and 3 points (Fox) among male voters.
Polls show that Biden has significant leads among women in the all-important battleground states, as well, ranging from 10 points in Georgia (University of Georgia poll) to 33 points in Maine (Quinnipiac University). Trump trails among women even in red Texas, by 8 points, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll.
The poll numbers are apt to change in the weeks ahead as the nation hears directly from the presidential candidates during a series of three debates.
Women will tune in by the millions. If even a small percentage of them exercise the prerogative to change their minds in either direction, it could swing the election’s outcome.