While a majority of South Dakotans continue to approve of the overall performance of Gov. Kristi Noem, a new poll shows that women are far less supportive than men of the governor, her handling of health-care issues and the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The poll results come at a time when Noem has become nationally known for her strong resistance to calls by health officials to control the virus by preventing large gatherings, reducing travel, restricting commerce, limiting close personal interaction and urging or requiring the wearing of masks.
In public appearances in recent months, Noem has openly flouted state Department of Health recommendations to socially distance and wear masks to reduce the spread of the deadly virus, and has regularly promoted her hands-off approach to the pandemic in social media posts and advertising campaigns in South Dakota and beyond.
The poll showed that women — who research has shown are enduring a greater financial and emotional burden than men during the pandemic — are far less supportive of Noem’s actions and approaches. Noem, a Republican, is the state’s first female governor.
The poll, sponsored by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota, showed that among all respondents, 53.8% strongly or somewhat approved of Noem’s overall performance in 2020, while 40.9% strongly or somewhat disapproved.
But while 63.8% of men strongly or somewhat supported Noem’s overall performance, only 44.0% of women indicated that level of support. Likewise, while only 31.6% of men strongly or somewhat disapproved of Noem’s overall performance this year, 49.9% of women strongly or somewhat disapproved of her performance.
Women were also less confident than men that Noem has communicated a clear plan of action on the pandemic, and significantly less confident than men that Noem has successfully managed health-care challenges in the state. While 65.2% of men said they felt strongly or somewhat that Noem “cares about the safety and health of my community,” only 45.0% of women felt strongly or somewhat the same way.
Women also felt less confidence in Noem’s ability to manage economic challenges, with 49.2% of women strongly or somewhat agreeing Noem was managing the economy well, compared with 68.0% of men in approval.
The largest gender gap present in the News Watch/Chiesman poll was on whether respondents felt the state should be doing more to handle the pandemic, with 40.1% of men feeling strongly or somewhat in agreement that more needs to be done, compared with 60.5% of women feeling more should be done by the state.
Political science professors interviewed by News Watch have a number of theories on why Noem is struggling to gain support of women. Augustana University professor Emily Wanless noted that Noem has never done well with women during elections and exhibits a leadership style that can appear masculine, potentially turning some women away. University of South Dakota professor Julia Hellwege offered that Noem has perhaps not shown enough empathy for people, especially women, who have been heavily affected by COVID-19.
David Wiltse, a political science professor at South Dakota State University, said the poll results show that Noem has lost some constituent support during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing some real softness among Independents, and in some important regards, there is a gender gap where women just aren’t as supportive of her as men are,” said Wiltse, who recently conducted his own poll on Noem’s performance.
In interviews with News Watch, a handful of South Dakota women had mixed reviews of the governor’s performance and handling of the pandemic, particularly her decisions to urge personal responsibility over mandates and not to require businesses to shut down.
“Kristi Noem has made it quite obvious that our state is made up of a lot of small businesses and is allowing us to stay open and earn an income and try to stay safe as adults, and I think she’s done a great job on that,” said Eileen Rossow, 72, a business owner in the Black Hills who is a registered Independent. “She’s letting me make my own decisions.”
But Marcia Langdeau, a 65-year-old Democrat from Fort Pierre, said she’s unsatisfied with Noem’s performance and handling of the pandemic.
“I don’t think she’s doing enough,” Langdeau said. “The virus is totally out of control in the Dakotas right now. There should have been a quarantine like there was in other states.”
Noem, Langdeau said, has taken too many cues about handling COVID-19 from President Donald Trump, who has also eschewed masks and urged opening of schools and the national economy.
“She needs to have her own opinion,” Langdeau said. “I thought the governor was supposed to create an agenda to make the state better; I don’t think she’s doing that.”
The telephone poll conducted by Pulse Research of Oregon included more than 13,000 calls and resulted in 600 completed surveys. It was conducted from Oct. 22-28; respondents were overwhelmingly registered voters in South Dakota, with a fairly even mix of respondents based on age, gender and income levels. The margin of error is 4%.
The poll was conducted at a time when COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths were rising in South Dakota, and since then, infections and deaths have continued to climb at a record pace. As of Nov. 11, the state had 55,705 total positive cases, with more than 600 current hospitalizations and 567 overall deaths; 62 of 66 counties had “substantial community spread” and daily new cases topped 1,200, according to the Department of Health.
Respondents were contacted at a time before the Nov. 3 election when Noem was frequently traveling out of state to campaign for Trump. Noem has since continued her vocal support for Trump, using social media recently to question the results of the election in which former Vice President Joe Biden collected enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Noem even suggested the election may have been “rigged.”
News Watch sent an email with many of the poll results and a list of questions to Noem’s office and received this response from Ian Fury, the governor’s communications director. “Governor Noem appreciates the trust of South Dakotans, and she’ll continue to trust them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones.”
Gender roles, stereotypes show up in poll results
Recent research by the United Nations and other institutions has shown that women globally are bearing a disproportionate burden of the pandemic in comparison with men, both emotionally and economically.
Women make up 67% of the global health-care workforce and about 80% of nurses are women, giving many an up-close view of the illness and death caused by the pandemic. Up to four times more women than men are primary family caregivers, again placing them on the front lines of the health outcomes caused by the virus.
Women have been more affected than men when it comes to losing jobs or work hours during the pandemic.
Those and other factors have created a difference in how men and women view the pandemic, the risks of COVID-19 and what responses government should take, experts said.
Hellwege, who studies the role of women in government and society at USD, said there are several likely reasons why women in the News Watch/Chiesman poll showed less support than men for Noem.
Since the pandemic began, Noem has espoused and also boasted about her approach to the coronavirus, which has been to allow businesses and schools to remain open, to promote large gatherings such as the Mount Rushmore fireworks and the Sturgis motorcycle rally, and to recommend the wearing of masks but not require it while also casting doubt on the efficacy of masks in protecting wearers from the virus.
Hellwege, who serves on the Vermillion City Council, said men are more likely to support a leader who doesn’t impose rules on them, such as requiring masks to protect themselves or others.
“They see masks as a sign of weakness, or not cool, or shameful,” Hellwege said. “For many men, taking precautions against a virus would somehow mean they are weaker than the virus. Men seem to have this idea that it’s not going to happen to them, and that overconfidence leads to them being less careful.”
But the gender gap in support of Noem is also certainly tied to the greater negative impacts the pandemic has had on the lives of many women and a sense among women that the governor has not been proactive enough in pushing precautions or restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.
Women, she said, are feeling increased impacts of the pandemic. Women are more likely to work not only in health-care fields but also in service, restaurant or retail positions that have been subject to layoffs or elimination during the pandemic.
Also, with more women serving as caretakers of children and the elderly, some are more sensitive to whether leaders are doing enough to prevent COVID-19 cases.
“Women have been much more burdened financially and emotionally with care responsibilities than men,” Hellwege said. “It’s a gendered social phenomenon that women are essentially forced, either socially or systematically, to take care of young children when day cares are closed or home-schooling is required.”
Hellewege, 34, who has no political-party affiliation, recently had her second child and said it is likely that the traditional mothering role played by women has made them more supportive of virus precautions and thereby less supportive of Noem.
“I would bet that if you asked these questions and further differentiated between women who are mothers and those without children, you’d see an even stronger response in favor of more precautions from women who are mothers,” Hellwege said.
Wanless, an associate professor in the Government and International Affairs Department at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, said she was not surprised to see poll results showing that Noem had less support among women than men.
Wanless said Noem has historically performed better with male voters, and the COVID-19 crisis may be exacerbating that difference.
“When I saw the gender gap, I saw that this is an issue that Democrats are never going to be happy with Kristi Noem and women are more likely to be Democrats, and they may judge someone harsher on a response that basically is seen as not nurturing,” Wanless said. “Her response is very much in line with a conservative approach to handling the pandemic, which is less about lifting a community up and more about personal responsibility.”
Noem, Wanless said, is in a tough spot as a woman in a leadership position during a crisis, especially with her politically conservative views. Her approach could be seen as traditionally masculine, which might cost her some support among women in South Dakota, Wanless said.
“If you think about her response to the coronavirus, it’s a very conservative argument — personal responsibility and taking care of ourselves,” Wanless said. “That runs counter to these feminine stereotypes where we believe women should have a communal, sensitive, caring outlook.”
As Noem traveled the country campaigning for Trump, Wanless said some South Dakotans may view her as trying to advance her own political career, which may attract criticism from her home-state constituency.
“Women politicians are often penalized if appearing to be power-seeking, much more so than men,” Wanless said. “This is a role that requires her to be commanding, which might be associated with more masculine traits and which we might forgive of men but not women.”
Wanless added that Noem may be losing some support due to her frequent out-of-state travel at a time when the coronavirus is peaking in South Dakota.
“I don’t think the timing is opportune to not be present in your state,” she said. “It’s never played well with voters here when you become too focused on the national political scene and forget about your South Dakota roots.”
Since the election, Noem has been seen back in South Dakota, in Pierre but also visiting some communities including Buffalo, Bison, Belle Fourche, Groton, Aberdeen and Parkston.
Partisanship part of the equation
Wiltse, who teaches in the School of American and Global Studies at SDSU, said the recent poll he conducted largely dovetailed with results from the News Watch/Chiesman poll. In the SDSU poll, Noem was the most popular among all statewide South Dakota elected officials, but he did see less support among women.
Wiltse said he understands why a majority of respondents agreed with the statement that the governor had effectively communicated a clear plan of action on the virus, even as a wider majority responded that South Dakota overall should be doing more to handle the virus.
“You’re giving people a partisan cue, just by mentioning her name, and that’s going to bring out people’s partisan inclinations that are strong in South Dakota,” Wiltse said. “The second question is more neutral, and you’re depersonalizing it and removing the partisan influence.”
South Dakota remains a state with a wide majority of GOP voters and is especially dominated by Republicans in elected offices. As of November, the state had about 278,000 registered Republicans (48% of all registered voters), about 159,000 registered Democrats (27%) and roughly 142,000 Independents, Libertarians or no-party affiliation voters (24%). But results from the Nov. 3 election in partisan races in South Dakota showed a near-complete GOP sweep in statewide and legislative races.
Due to the strong Republican leanings, Wiltse said, the poll results showing a wider majority of respondents saying the state, rather than just Noem, should be doing more to handle the coronavirus is a more valuable representation of how South Dakotans feel about the overall pandemic response.
While both polls showed a majority of respondents are supportive of Noem’s performance as governor, Wiltse noted that the results from both polls indicate some “softness” in overall approval and support of the pandemic response by Noem, who won the governor’s race in 2018 by just 3.4 points over Democrat Billie Sutton.
The SDSU poll, he said, showed that about 20% of Republican respondents were not satisfied or were neutral on the governor’s handling of the pandemic.
“It’s not breaking down straight on partisan lines,” Wiltse said. “Democrats are very unified in their opposition to the governor’s handling of the virus, but there is some serious dissent within the Republican Party.”
Link to complete poll results
Click here to access the full poll results from the October 2020 poll sponsored by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy.
— South Dakota News Watch reporter Nick Lowrey contributed to this report.