Republicans pulled out all the stops at their convention to persuade female voters that President Donald Trump cares about their interests, even pledging to put a woman on the moon. But polls show that Trump is losing ground as women’s concerns about him intensify.
The gender gap that Trump barely overcame to win in 2016 has grown wider. Polling this summer shows that female voters not only object to his persona, but also to his preference for a heavy,militaristic response to racial-justice protesters.
While Republicans traditionally face a gender gap in presidential elections, “the magnitude of that difference is larger this time with Trump,” said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “He definitely has quite a problem with women voters — and any Republican has some problem with women voters relative to men — but he has a much bigger problem.”
Throughout the Republican National Convention last week, woman after woman took the podium to describe Trump’s compassion, empathy and protective nature, and urged viewers to believe that behind the scenes, Trump is far different from what the country sees every day. His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, recalled how he frequently asked about her new baby, and first lady Melania Trump said he was anguished over the rising human toll of the coronavirus.
The convention also featured more women than four years ago. In 2016, 29% of featured speaking slots went to women, rising to 38% in 2020.
“We have to campaign, are doing everything we can, to remind women, ‘Look, don’t think about what this president has said, or the way he delivers a message specifically, look at what he’s actually done for this country,” campaign senior adviser and daughter-in-law Lara Trump said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The Trump campaign says the convention was designed also to show Trump as the fierce protector against lawlessness on the streets, even as the unrest has escalated on his watch. The GOP squarely blamed Democratic mayors and governors and argued that only with Republicans can women feel that they and their children are safe.
“The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” Trumptweeted earlier this month. “They want safety.”
But experts say women’s opinions about Trump after four years have only grown less favorable, and testimonials to his off-camera demeanor are unlikely to change that. They also say the somewhat antiquated notion of a “suburban housewife” will do little to broaden his base, especially when his Democratic opponent Joe Biden has chosen California Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, as his running mate.
Trump won the presidency with 52% of votes cast nationally by men but only 41% of those from women. That 11-point gender gap tied the biggest recorded in the four decades it’s been tracked in U.S. presidential elections — and has grown substantially since then, according to surveys.
A Pew Research Center poll of registered voters in August showed Biden, the Democratic nominee, leading Trump by 2 percentage points among men and by 14 percentage points among women. An ABC News/Washington Post poll of registered voters taken just before the national conventions began Aug. 17 placed Biden’s lead among women at 16 percentage points.
Republicans stoked concerns throughout the convention about the wave of violence that’s accompanied peaceful protests in reaction to police shootings of African Americans.
“Women, in particular, but just like any voter, really, care very much about the safety of their communities,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
Who’s in Charge?
But the argument that Trump will keep women and their families safer than Biden may fail to resonate because women recognize that Trump is the nation’s leader now, said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.
The efficacy of the president’s law-and-order messaging depends on “whether suburban women believe that Joe Biden will make things worse,” Lawless said. “The reality is if they think right now there’s unrest in the cities, Donald Trump is president right now.”
And Trump’s responses, which usually involve calls to crack down on protests with military-like force — even deploying military helicopters at one point — doesn’t inspire support from female voters.
A Yahoo News poll in July found men and women equally concerned about a breakdown of law and order. But women were more likely to say the solution was to bring people together: 59% of women favored that approach, compared to 53% of men.
And in Wisconsin, a must-win state, the violence in Kenosha over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by white police officers — followed by the shooting of protesters by a white teen — has the potential to scramble the presidential race there.
A Marquette University Law School poll taken before the Kenosha protests showed that 56% of women in Wisconsin had a positive view of the Black Lives Matter movement compared to 40% for Wisconsin men.
The Republican convention aimed to drive home the point that women should feel safe with Trump at the helm.
Melania Trump used the word “family” 23 times in her speech at the convention. Lara Trump portrayed the Trump family as “warm and caring.” And White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway spoke of how Trump respects women’s opinions and “insists that we are on equal footing with the men.”
“The uplifting and compelling speeches by both Kellyanne Conway and Kayleigh McEnany resonated with hard-working women who also juggle many roles as providers, mothers, wives or single parents, and seek to realize the American dream for themselves and their children,” said Mica Mosbacher, who sits on the Women for Trump 2020 advisory board, noting that the convention speakers were designed to convey Trump’s “compassion.”
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden, said the large number of women on the Republican convention roster was a belated attempt to address the president’s longstanding problems with female voters.
“The Trump campaign, nine and a half weeks before the general election, suddenly decided they want to try to get these women back, but they have huge problems,” Dunn said. “They’re trying to do it with a fear campaign. The divisiveness, the not acting presidential, the trying to divide Americans with these tactics, is a huge part of what alienated these voters to begin with.”
Polling shows that women, besides supporting Trump in much smaller numbers than men, also tend to rate Trump lower on key personal attributes. The biggest differences were on courage and on compassion for ordinary people, according to a Pew Research Center survey in June. The survey found that men are more likely to see those qualities in Trump, while women tend to see them in Biden.
— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein, Mario Parker, and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou
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