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2020 election could deliver the biggest gender gap in American history. What's driving it?

It's not just Trump's demeanor. Many women also point to the way the coronavirus has upended their lives as a motivating factor to support Joe Biden.
Image: Christie Tan holds an illuminated BIDEN sign at a drive-in election eve rally in Philadelphia
Christie Tan holds an illuminated BIDEN sign at a drive-in election eve rally in Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 2020.Mark Makela / Getty Images

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Randi Sigafoos did not want to leave her kids home alone, but she didn’t know what else to do.

"It's been very challenging. I had to come back to work, so I kind of don’t have a choice. And my husband works, so it’s been hard," said Sigafoos, 50, who works at a jewelry store in historic Bethlehem, part of an old steel mill county an hour outside of Philadelphia that narrowly supported Donald Trump in 2016.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, things weren’t so bad for Sigafoos. Her mom was able to help out with her two girls, 10 and 12 years old, when they were learning remotely, giving her and her husband some peace of mind. Hiring a babysitter was not a luxury they could afford, but they made do.

But then Sigafoos’ 95-year-old grandmother started to decline. The family had to make a tradeoff. Sigafoos’ mom would move in with her grandmother so she could care for her round-the-clock, and the two girls would have to be left home alone. Those tradeoffs took a toll.

"It has been an absolute struggle. I just hope things change with the election," said Sigafoos, who voted early for Joe Biden.

Polls suggest that this presidential election could result in the biggest gender gap the country has seen since women won the right to vote 100 years ago. Women are breaking for Biden by more than 20 percentage points in some pre-election surveys, up from 2016 when Hillary Clinton won women by 15 points, while men are largely sticking with President Donald Trump. Some men, including some Black and Hispanic men, are even supporting Trump at a slightly higher rate than in 2016.

That could put the gender gap, the difference between the percentage of men and women who vote for the winning candidate, near 30 points. It was around 20 points in the last election.

Although women as a group have voted Democratic for decades, that is mostly due to support from Black and nonwhite women. The last time white women backed a Democrat for president was in 1996 when Bill Clinton won re-election. But recent surveys show that white women, especially those with college degrees, are souring on the president. The 2020 election could be the first time in 25 years that they go for a Democrat.

There are a variety of reasons for why women have strayed from Trump since 2016: his sexist behavior, his pugilistic style, and policies like child separation that infuriated many women. But the coronavirus pandemic and its effects, which disproportionately impact women of all economic backgrounds and races compared to their male counterparts, also appear to be pushing some away from the president.

Female unemployment this year reached double digits for the first time since 1948 (when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking women’s unemployment). This joblessness crisis hurt women of color the most.

Part of this is due to heavy layoffs in female-dominated industries, such as hospitality and entertainment. But research also show that women are being forced out of the labor market due to child care demands. A study from McKinsey and the advocacy group Lean In found that one in four women in corporate jobs were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due child care responsibilities they had to take on in the wake of Covid-19.

In conversations with women in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state that could decide the winner of the presidential race, many talked about the intense stress they felt having to juggle work and child care, a situation they thought could have been avoided with better leadership.

Gabriela Snyder, a mom of three from Chester County, a Philadelphia suburb where Democrats hope to run up their margins, said her two older kids were doing in-person learning, but her youngest was in a hybrid program and was home three days a week.

While Snyder said she felt lucky that her children were fairly independent, the uncertainty of Covid-19 and whether schools would shut down entirely again kept her from going back to work as therapist after she received her Master’s degree at the end of 2019.

"I do think if it weren't for Covid and the way Trump handled it, we would be looking possibly at very different poll numbers," said Snyder, who voted early for Biden.

"The coronavirus compounds all of this because there has been so much misinformation coming from the top about what this virus is about. It has led to a lot of anxiety."

In Bucks County, Pennsylvania's fourth-most-populated county where unemployment rates and deaths per capita linked to Covid-19 are some of the highest in the country, Adela, a single mom who works at a restaurant in New Hope, said she could not afford to leave her job but she also could not afford child care.

"I am scared. I never left them alone before, but what else am I supposed to do?" she said. Her two daughters, 14 and 6 years old, are learning remotely a few days a week.

"I feel like a bad parent. But I don't know what to do. I can’t leave my job, I have to provide," she said. "I am praying that Biden wins."

Trump lost Bucks County by less than one percentage point in 2016.

Susan J. Carroll, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, said she thought the pandemic was "playing a major role" in driving the gender gap this election year.

"It's an economic role as well as a health role. It's falling so hard on women. Most are working outside of the home, now they have kids they're trying to arrange childcare for," Carroll said. "[The virus] has made women who were already feeling that Trump's behavior was inappropriate feel even more so."

Kim Chase, a mom of three college-age kids from Montgomery County, another Philadelphia suburb, said that since she no longer worked and her kids were older, the virus had not derailed her life in the same way that she recognized it did for many other people.

Still, after voting for Trump in 2016, Chase said she was "95 percent sure" she would support Biden on Election Day.

"Donald Trump scares me right now. He just is not capable of communicating effectively. He just is not trustworthy. He's completely unmanageable. I mean, he's crazy."

"At the same time, I do hold on to my conservative values," Chase said. "This is going to be another election for me where I'm just sad because I have to go and vote for the lesser of two evils again."