HENRICO, Va. — When the women of “Finding Female Friends Past 50” get together, they don’t usually talk about politics.
That’s partly because there’s so much else to do instead: In the suburbs of Richmond — where the 685-member Meetup group is based — they take walking tours, visit holiday light displays or go out dancing at the club inside the local Doubletree. (Out-on-the-floor-dancers and in-your-chair-dancers are both welcome, per the invitation.)
But it’s also because, around here, it’s hard to predict what anyone else is thinking, says Marsha Lee Miller, who started the group earlier this year. Henrico is part of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, a longtime Republican stronghold that after electing Abigail Spanberger in 2018, is being represented by a Democrat for the first time since 1971. The district lines were redrawn in 2016, and in the run-up to 2020, it’s an area that pundits will watch closely — both because it’s so thoroughly purple, and because it’s home to critical mass of a demographic that many are desperate to better understand: college-educated suburban white women.
The suburban white woman — especially in politically purple regions like this one — has been called the “hidden Trump voter.” In 2016, it’s clear some percentage of this demographic decided to vote for President Trump, after claiming in polls that they planned to vote Democrat. As the Democratic field narrows, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) beginning to surpass former vice president Biden (D-Del.) at the top of the pack, I wanted to know how this much-studied voting bloc was weighing their options.
And so, at my request, a few past-50 female friends agreed to gather Tuesday night to watch the fourth Democratic presidential debate.
When I arrived at Sherry White’s condo, a few minutes before 8 p.m., everyone was already sitting around the TV, drinking glasses of pink Crystal Lite while nibbling on Triscuits and cubed cheese. Of the five women who showed up, four are registered Democrats and one identifies as independent. All are still deciding how they’ll vote in the Democratic primary. (In Virginia, the primary is open to voters of any party.)
“Maybe Biden, maybe Harris, maybe Buttigieg,” says Beth Kaiser, a retired nurse with a cropped pixie cut. Kaiser does political canvassing work for Democrats in neighboring Chesterfield County — and quickly recruits fellow debate-watcher Pat Peterson, a retired special ed teacher who just moved to the area, as a new volunteer.
Of all the candidates, everyone agrees that Biden is the most electable. But they worry about his age. In past debates, they’ve watched him trip over his words, struggling to find his train of thought. Last month, when former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro questioned Biden’s memory, claiming Biden had forgotten what he’d said “two minutes ago,” they noticed.
“Still, I’m for Biden because I want to win,” says Kathleen Lowry, a psychotherapist who specializes in marriage counseling.
Someone shyly mentions Warren. Everyone is clearly going after her tonight, they say: a clear sign that she’s a top contender.
“But she would never get elected,” says Lowry. “There is no chance.”
“Why do you say that?” says White, a former navy officer with a PhD in health policy.
“All the people who voted for Trump are scared to death of socialism,” she says. Warren’s policies are far too left-leaning to appeal to most Americans, Lowry says. Living in this area, she adds, she understands the importance of selecting a moderate.
When pundits question Trump’s support among women, he will often allude to the “hidden” suburban women voting block that backed him in 2016.
“I’m confident there are a number of female voters out there who don’t talk to pollsters and don’t register in polls but support the president,” Trump campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany told Politico in a recent interview.
Everyone watching the debate here tonight is worried about reaching those voters.
“We need to figure out how to get to those people,” says Deb Snelson, a former coast guard officer who now works as a landscape photographer. When she sees Trump rallies on TV, she says, she can’t believe all the people — and all the women, in particular — who are choosing to stand behind him.
“We need to promise them no socialism,” says Lowry.
But Warren’s left-leaning policies aren’t the only reason she won’t win against Trump, Snelson says.
“It’s also because she’s a woman,” she says, barely loud enough to hear, eyes still trained on the TV.
“Because we only elect charming, confident people, period,” says Lowry. “Every single person we’ve elected has had a nice smile — ”
“Well every single person we’ve elected has been male,” says White, sitting up a little straighter in her chair.
“I don’t care if they’ve got a nice smile,” says Snelson.
“You don’t,” says Lowry, “but that’s what gets elected.”
“I think we need to address the elephant in the room here, ladies. It’s called gender bias,” says White. “We look at women, and the way they present, very differently than we do men. Women who are assertive are often labeled as aggressive, in ways men don’t have to deal with.”
“I agree, and that’s another strike against Warren,” says Lowry. “We’re not ready for a woman.”
“You have to choose a candidate that the country is going to elect,” says Kaiser. “I mean, I’m sorry, but you do.” Kaiser supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. Ingrained gender biases, she says, probably had a lot to do with Clinton’s loss. These hunches are backed by research: Thirteen percent of Americans still believe men are more “emotionally suited” to politics than women, according to a recent study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
In 2020, Kaiser says, the stakes of the election are too high to take risk nominating Warren.
She is more interested in Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who has “a voice [she’d] like to hear on the news every day.” She is less “shrieky” than Warren, Kaiser says. (Hillary Clinton’s voice was also often criticized for being too “high-pitched” or “shrill,” which many attribute to sexist stereotypes.)
Peterson likes Harris, too.
“At some point we’ve got to push the envelope and elect a woman or things are never going to change,” she says. “I mean, if not now, when?”
“Later,” says Kaiser.
“After we fix the situation with Trump,” says Lowry.
“But we need a candidate who gives people hope,” says Snelson. She likes Warren. She doesn’t find her “too aggressive” or “too emotional,” as Lowry does. But Snelson worries about her staunch commitment to Medicare-for-all. She prefers Biden’s health care plan. Because of that policy difference, Snelson says, she’ll probably end up voting for him.
And really, she says, would that be so bad?
“I think he’s a good man with a good heart,” says Peterson. “I think he tries to do the right thing.”
When the debate conversation turns to Syria — and Trump’s decision not to help the Kurds rebuff attacks from Turkey — support for Biden seems to solidify.
“I really think, as far as healing our relationships around the world, Joe is the one,” says Kaiser.
Peterson and White agreed: As both vice president and a longtime senator, they said, he spent a lot of time with foreign leaders overseas.
“He has earned a level of trust,” says Peterson.
The night ends early. By the beginning of the third hour, the group decides that they’ve heard enough. White turns down the volume, and the group begins to discuss the merits of a President Biden.
Snelson mostly stays quiet. She’s not entirely sold.