By The Numbers

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.”

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.”

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 studies the role of women in government and society at USD, said there are 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.

Wanless, an associate professor in the Government and International Affairs Department at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, 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.

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.

“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 said. “That runs counter to these feminine stereotypes where we believe women should have a communal, sensitive, caring outlook.”

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.

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