Given how unreliable the exit polls were this year, it will likely be a while before we know exactly how differently men and women voted in 2020. But a new survey from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life offers some clues, indicating that once again, gender and sexism may have been a big dividing line, as was the case in 2016.
That may seem surprising since this year’s contest pitted President Trump against another white man instead of a woman, much less the first woman to run for president on a major-party ticket. It certainly seemed possible heading into this election that the gender gap might be smaller, especially as Joe Biden seemed poised to pick up more support among male voters than Hillary Clinton did.
Only that doesn’t appear to have happened, at least not in a widespread way. Men’s and women’s voting patterns have been diverging for the past few decades. But according to research conducted before and after the election, the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a large role in exacerbating gender divisions in the electorate. This split wasn’t enough for Trump to win this time, of course, but his attitude toward the coronavirus crisis may actually have been a bonus for some men, which could present a real challenge for Biden moving forward.
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Overall, most Americans consistently disapproved of the way Trump handled the pandemic, but the AEI poll found one notable exception — men who identify as “completely masculine.”7 As the table below shows, a majority (52 percent) of men who identified as completely masculine on the survey agreed that the Trump administration has a strategy on COVID-19 — setting them apart from all other men and women. (Compared with other respondents, completely masculine men were also much more evenly split on the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, more likely to believe that wearing a mask was more about being politically correct than about preventing the spread of COVID-19, and more likely to oppose a national mask mandate.)
Trump’s handling of COVID-19 didn’t turn off masculine men
Survey responses of men and women according to how completely they identify as masculine or feminine
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling the response to the coronavirus (COVID-19)?Masc. MenFem. WomenResponseTotalCompletelyLessDiffCompletelyLessDiffApprove38%47%31+1638%35%+3Disapprove605268-165964-5Do you think the Trump administration has had a strategy for responding to the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) or do you think there has not been a strategy?Masc. MenFem. WomenResponseTotalCompletelyLessDiffCompletelyLessDiffYes, has a strategy40%52%32+2040%34%+6No, does not have a strategy584767-205864-6Source: AEI Survey Center on American Life
Of course, the idea that men who identify as more masculine would be more supportive of the president isn’t that much of a shocker considering they have been among his biggest fans from the beginning. According to the AEI survey, that was true this year as well: When broken out by how masculine or feminine they identified themselves, completely masculine men were the only group where the majority (60 percent) said they had voted for Trump. These men may also be more likely to subscribe to a more traditional ideal of masculinity that echoes Trump’s “just shrug it off” attitude toward the pandemic. In fact, research conducted before the election found that these men, or men who fall into a similar category, were less likely to wear masks in the first place or take other precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing. One analysis even found that men who were considered more sexist were more likely to report having contracted the virus.
Daniel Cassino, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of one of the studies that found more masculine men dismissing COVID-19 precautions, told us that this conclusion lines up with a broader tendency among men to take fewer health precautions period — like wearing seat belts or going to the doctor regularly. Cassino said that traditional stereotypes around masculinity encourage men to shake off vulnerability, such as hiding a fear of illness and instead projecting strength. The pandemic, he added, may have sent these tendencies into overdrive, leading some men to oppose public health restrictions and forgo protective health measures like wearing masks. “COVID-19 makes men focus more on their masculine identity than they otherwise would have, because they feel this pressure to say and demonstrate, ‘Yeah, this big scary medical crisis is happening, but it’s not going to affect me,’” Cassino said.
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It’s hard to completely untangle these effects from the impact of partisanship. Men who identify as completely masculine are disproportionately likely to be Republican, and as we’ve written before, Republicans have been consistently less likely to report feeling worried about the pandemic and to support public health restrictions on businesses and individuals. But arguably, this reflects the extent to which Americans’ views about gender roles have become intertwined with their partisan identity, according to Daniel Cox, director of AEI’s Survey Center on American Life and a FiveThirtyEight contributor. “Reaffirming that you are traditionally masculine is itself a political statement today — a way to push back on changes to the way society is organized,” he said.
But there is some evidence from the studies on COVID-19 and masculinity that identifying as more masculine or supporting conventional gender roles has had an independent effect on men’s response to the pandemic, separate from how they identify politically. In the AEI poll, too, Republican men who identified as completely masculine were somewhat more likely than less-masculine Republican men to approve of the way Trump has handled the pandemic, although the difference wasn’t necessarily all that huge (79 percent compared with 69 percent).
One possible explanation is that the threat of business closures or other restrictions on the economy may have been alarming especially to men who identify as completely masculine. “Because employment and working is so central to American masculinity, job loss is seen as a threat to masculinity,” said Emily Carian, a professor of sociology at California State University, San Bernardino. Data shows that women were actually more likely than men to lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic, but the very prospect of being unemployed may have been unsettling particularly to men who have stronger masculine identities, leading them to oppose limitations on how businesses operate.
Responses to the pandemic likely would have been different among different types of men and women even if Trump weren’t the president. And, of course, Trump’s response overall wasn’t very popular. But by actively seizing on the spread of COVID-19 as an opportunity to emphasize his own brand of hypermasculinity and portray his opponent as weak and ineffective, Trump may have crafted a tailor-made pitch for men whose own sense of masculinity was threatened by the pandemic.
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Those men may have actually appreciated Trump’s bravado in rejecting masks and repeatedly calling to reopen the economy over the objections of the public health community. In an experimental study conducted in 2016, Carian found that when men’s masculinity was threatened by the prospect of job loss, they were more likely to say they wanted a masculine president — and of the two candidates, Trump was perceived as more masculine. It’s possible that Trump may have managed to use the pandemic to create a similar impression among some voters this year, even though he wasn’t running against a woman. That’s because a male candidate like Biden could still be perceived as the less-masculine option, Carian said. Biden’s choice to wear a mask may have appeared masculine to some, but it was unlikely to resonate with men who were already more likely to see mask-wearing as a sign of weakness.
In other words, even though Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was not a winning electoral strategy overall, it wasn’t uniformly unpopular. In fact, COVID-19 might partially explain why Trump managed to hang onto so many male supporters. It’s also an important reminder that as Biden enters office with a very different vision for how to address the pandemic, these are the very Americans who are among the likeliest to resent — or even resist — his strategy for getting the coronavirus under control.