She has not heard much from former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic choice for president, and has few kind words for Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, a close Trump ally, who has done little to improve a byzantine unemployment benefit system she spent months navigating.
And then there is the president himself. “If he would just stop tweeting,” she said, “I think everything would be a little bit better.”
Scaglione’s dilemma has become a burgeoning obsession for Republican strategists, who have watched a perilous fall in support for Trump’s reelection over the past few months. The shift has resulted in an advantage of five to six points in key Midwestern swing states that offered Biden only marginal leads at the start of the year.
At the core of the erosion is a dramatic abandonment of Trump by key demographic groups. The rebellion by college-educated women against the president in 2018, which gave Democrats control of the U.S. House via victories in the suburbs, has begun to register more deeply in recent months among non-college-educated and older women.
Trump’s weekend rally in Tulsa, which focused more on his personal grievances than on solutions to America’s pressing problems, reinforced the sentiments that political strategists say have driven women to desert him.
“These women really describe their lives as filled with exhausting chaos,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is advising the Biden campaign and who traced the recent shifts to Trump’s pandemic response. “It is something new every day. And they want someone who will lead them through this, not someone who will make it more chaotic.”
Just 4½ months from the election, an already historic partisan gender gap appears to be solidifying, with Biden enjoying a 23-point lead over Trump among female voters, up from the 14-point edge for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to a Washington Post average of current national polls, 2016 exit polling and a Pew survey of confirmed voters.
Trump still has an advantage among white non-college-educated women, winning them by 14 points, compared with college-educated women, whom Biden wins by 28 points. But both groups have moved in the Democrats’ direction since 2016, by 11 points among those without college degrees and 12 points among those with degrees.
Nationwide, Trump resides well south of the 46 percent of the popular vote he received in 2016, and his campaign has concluded that growing his support among women is critical to making up the difference. His team has launched an effort to attract a “Women for Trump” volunteer base and expand a large push to reach out to women who are not engaged in politics.
At the White House, Trump has repeatedly been shown polls in which Biden holds a considerable lead among women and seniors in swing states, according to advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. GOP Senate strategists have watched a similar erosion in down-ballot races, forcing candidates from North Carolina to Maine to Colorado to redouble their efforts to shore up their support.
Trump’s ability to follow his advisers’ guidance to win back the lost support has been uneven, and at times his moves have been counterproductive, Republican strategists say. Last week’s White House roundtable on senior issues, and another on police reform — “We grieve together, and we heal together,” the president said — are exactly the sort of efforts Trump’s political advisers want to see.
But days later he was back to threatening protesters before his Saturday rally in Tulsa, where he returned to a set of contradictory, divisive themes. He used highly charged racial language — calling protesters “thugs,” a hypothetical criminal “hombre” and covid-19 the “Kung flu.” He said he had told his advisers to “slow the testing down” to reduce the numbers of confirmed positive coronavirus cases, and he returned to defending Confederate monuments as part of the country’s “great heritage.”
Such inconsistency has become a feature of Trump’s responses to recent crises. He promoted an unproven drug to treat covid-19 and mused about injecting disinfectant, just as his reelection team prepared an ad campaign defending his record on the coronavirus. He called for “domination” of street protests and oversaw a forced clearing of a peaceful gathering outside the White House the same week his campaign released a video tribute to the demonstrations against police misconduct.
Republicans across the country have been struggling with the resulting vertigo, as they try not to alienate Trump while at the same time avoiding any mention of the president in their own campaigns, in hopes of polling ahead of him on Election Day.
“The entire lack of message discipline is the biggest frustration for all the campaigns,” said Scott Reed, the political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is mostly supporting Republican candidates. “A lot of these Senate campaigns are starting to do their own things, and I don’t mean cut from the president. I mean just do their own initiatives.”
The game plan inside the White House and the campaign is to keep Trump on track, pushing him out on the road as soon as possible to directly connect with supporters in hopes of re-creating the atmosphere from the final months of the 2016 campaign, when Trump’s Twitter account stayed on message, he outsourced his advertising choices and he stuck to script at rallies.
“You have to transition to the fact that the president is basically doing what he needs to do to stop the spread of coronavirus, rebuild the country, and now he will have to restore peace and help us heal,” said one campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy.
Republican strategists close to the president say he has to convince women that his handling of the coronavirus has been better than they currently believe — and that he has saved lives and the economy. In recent polling shown to the president, a majority said that he did not respond quickly enough or that the government had not done enough on the health front.
White House adviser Jared Kushner has talked to allies about promoting an agenda that is more amenable to many suburban voters, and some Trump advisers are considering a push on topics such as school choice. Advisers are discussing sending to swing states Trump surrogates who are less polarizing than the president himself, such as his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump.
In places such as Florida, they want to tout school choice while pitching Trump’s “law and order” stance against protesters’ call to “defund the police,” according to a campaign adviser. They believe that classic Republican positions, if properly handled, have the potential to expand Trump’s appeal beyond his base and to bring more independent women back into the fold, particularly if a contrast is established with Biden’s liberal proposals.
Publicly, the Trump campaign refuses to admit any vulnerability among female voters, pointing to its multiple outreach programs and the fact that the female share of donors has risen to nearly half from just over a quarter in 2016, according to internal campaign reports. The campaign hosts virtual “Moms Night In” organizing events as well as state-specific calls, dubbed “Mom Talks,” with female supporters to discuss Trump’s efforts to address the pandemic.
“What women want is a safe and strong America, opportunity for a better tomorrow, more money in their pockets and lower taxes,” Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said. “President Trump has a proven track record of success on those issues compared to Biden’s dismal five-decade-long track record of record-slow economic growth, high taxes and failed globalist policies.”
The job for Trump is complicated by Biden’s relative strength among many of the voters Clinton struggled to win over in 2016. Suburban women are more favorable toward Biden than they were toward Clinton in May 2016, with Biden at 56 percent favorable compared with 42 percent who were favorable toward Clinton then, according to a May Washington Post-ABC News poll.
As a result, Trump has been devoting a significant share of his advertising to try to change how those voters view Biden, often by attacking attributes that make him more appealing to women.
“You have to figure out how to bang up Biden. The guy has not taken a lick of oppo for months,” Republican strategist Josh Holmes, a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said in an implicit criticism of the Trump campaign. “There has to be a sustained effort as to why he is not fit to be president of the United States.”
The Trump campaign has spent more than $1 million in recent weeks on Facebook ads about Social Security, according to tracking by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic firm. Many of the spots have overwhelmingly targeted women, according to Facebook, with messages such as: “PRESIDENT TRUMP HAS KEPT HIS PROMISE TO PROTECT SOCIAL SECURITY. Sleepy Joe Biden and the rest of the radical democrats will DESTROY Social Security.”
The ad is misleading. Biden has vowed no cuts for the program in his current campaign, saying he would instead increase revenue for it by raising taxes on high-income earners and would expand benefits for some seniors. Trump has similarly promised to protect the program, but he also has proposed cuts to elements of it that support disabled workers.
Other attacks on Biden have focused on his mental fitness, his policies toward China and his track record on civil rights. Such messaging is likely to continue in the coming months, mirroring the campaign that Republicans ran in 2018 casting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a liberal ideologue — Democrats largely won those races — as well as the 2016 campaign.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has been gingerly trying to avoid easy characterizations that could decrease women’s support, most recently by rejecting the call to “defund the police” and instead proposing an increase in federal funding to improve their training. Many of his public comments have expressed sympathy for victims of police abuse and for protesters’ right to peacefully gather. His campaign has said since its inception that Trump’s character is lacking, a political argument to which it believes women are more receptive — and its frequent tagline “Enough” is meant to signal exhaustion at presidential chaos.
“He is positioning himself as a centrist grandpa who wants to give you a hug and bring you some ice cream,” Republican strategist Corry Bliss said. “We can’t let that happen.”
In the meantime, the Trump campaign continues to dispute the public polling showing that the president has a problem with women.
“I continue to say the president actually performs better with women today than he did in 2016,” campaign manager Brad Parscale said in an April appearance on Fox News.
The network had just conducted a poll in Michigan and Pennsylvania that found Trump trailing Biden among women by 20 and 21 points, respectively. Trump lost women to Clinton in 2016 by 11 points in Michigan and 13 points in Pennsylvania, according to national exit polls.
“Polls can be skewed in so many different ways. I just don’t believe it,” Parscale said.
The more pressing challenge, he continued, was to “overcome the media’s biased message.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.