Trump’s flailing response to the coronavirus pandemic and his move to inflame nationwide racial tensions are exacerbating an already precarious situation, according to interviews with female Republican lawmakers and GOP pollsters focused on female voters.
Women now favor presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by an eye-popping 23 percentage points, according to an average of national polls since late June. And White women, a majority of whom backed Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, are starting to abandon the president.
“There was a gender gap when it came to Hillary Clinton, but now there is a gender chasm,” said GOP strategist Sarah Longwell, who has been conducting regular focus groups with female Trump voters who no longer approve of the president. “Trump has created an environment where women are not particularly interested in the Republican Party . . . where the Republican Party doesn’t seem like a place for women.”
Although GOP pollsters and strategists spoke freely about the problem, many Republican women in Congress were reluctant to criticize Trump or party leaders publicly, fearful of triggering the president’s wrath. Privately, one female lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about internal frustration, said male GOP leaders have done little to address the problem, but she also suggested that not much can be done until Trump is out of office.
The GOP struggles came sharply into focus at the end of July with a series of self-inflicted missteps. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) was accused of using a vulgar and sexist expletive to describe Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). He denied he said the words and offered an apology that was widely criticized as insufficient.
In the same week, the highest-ranking House Republican woman, GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), came under fire from her male colleagues for criticizing Trump on some national security issues and supporting Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert.
Within days, Trump tweeted a term for women out of the 1950s: “Suburban Housewives of America . . . Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!”
Across Washington, Republican women groaned at the phrase “housewives.”
“I’m like, really? Just stop talking, please. Gentlemen, STOP talking,” said GOP strategist Sarah Chamberlain, who has tried to help her party appeal to female voters. “We need women around the country to recognize that the Republican Party is not just what happened [that] week.”
Elected GOP women are more measured in their criticism of the rhetoric. “I think the tone that we’ve had . . . is costing us, I think, women voters in some ways,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of nine female Republican senators. “Instead of finding common ground, [we’re] always fighting. Certainly, we see that here in the Senate, but we also see it on the other side of the aisle over in the House, and we also see it at the presidential level.”
In a statement, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and a campaign adviser, rejected the idea that the president is alienating women, attributing the erosion of support to inaccurate polling that also predicted Clinton would defeat Trump in 2016.
“While Joe Biden continues to lump all women into one voting bloc, President Trump is delivering on an array of issues that really matter to women across the country,” Lara Trump said in a statement to The Washington Post.
She cited a YouGov poll on July 30 to suggest that “64 [percent] of female voters approve of most things Trump has done.” However, the YouGov poll document clearly shows that the question of whether female voters approve of “most things” President Trump has done was asked only of respondents who already said they approve of Trump as president, making the campaign’s claim inaccurate.
In fact, that poll found that 37 percent of women approve of Trump while 57 percent disapprove. Other recent polls show him faring even worse.
The exodus of women has been particularly distressing to Republican strategists because many of the women are die-hard conservatives on issues such as abortion and police power who have reached a tipping point when it comes to Trump.
Once willing to overlook controversies because their families were doing well, the security these voters felt with the booming economy is now gone because of the pandemic, the pollsters say. Now they are worried about their children, their elderly parents and their livelihoods — and they don’t see Trump as a leader who can protect them.
“Suburban voters, including women, are center-right voters. Democrats don’t own them,” said Liesl Hickey, the former executive director for the National Republican Congressional Committee who has been conducting research on the suburbs. “But Republicans must make a compelling policy-focused case to earn their support.”
Trump, who had been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct before his election, lost the female vote to Clinton by 13 points in 2016, according to exit polls. Then in the 2018 midterm elections, many highly educated suburban women who traditionally vote Republican turned on the GOP and the president, rejecting Trump’s divisive rhetoric and handing Democrats the House majority.
After those suburban losses in 2018, a small group of House Republican women confronted GOP leaders. The ranks of female House GOP members had dwindled to 13 — an embarrassment, compared with the Democrats’ much larger and more diverse group of female members. Many Republicans also agreed they needed to do more to appeal to female voters to win back the suburbs.
Republicans have had some success attempting to address the first problem: Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who started her own recruitment operation, and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who chaired NRCC recruitment, helped field a record number of Republican women running for office this year.
But support among female voters has worsened — a sensitive subject for GOP women in Congress. Many declined to be interviewed for this article, and those who did were cautious in their criticism.
Asked whether Trump’s handling of the pandemic has made it harder to appeal to suburban voters, Brooks — who is retiring from a GOP suburban district that’s suddenly competitive — acknowledged “there have been some mixed messages, and that, I think, has been of concern.”
“I do think suburban women in particular are probably frustrated, not knowing and understanding, you know, what the plan is, who’s responsible, who’s calling the shots, who’s setting the example,” she said. “From the president on down, we all could be doing a better job of communicating.
Longwell, a Trump critic, has been closely watching both college- and non-college-educated women who supported Trump in 2016 turn against him in real time. In the early days of the pandemic, even as the economy was faltering, these women were willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, saying that it wasn’t his fault the virus was spreading worldwide.
But as the crisis worsened, Longwell said, these women who were following stay-at-home orders watched Trump’s news conferences. They were shocked by Trump’s performances, belying the image of a successful businessman they thought they had voted for in 2016, according to the focus groups.
At the same time, the crisis struck home for many of the women as they tried to manage children forced to learn at home and elderly parents in nursing homes. Now they’re fearful about job security and wondering how to send their children back to school safely.
“The thing I hear the most is, ‘I just want clarity. I just want somebody to tell us what is going on truthfully,’ ” Longwell said. “And they feel like that’s not happening, that there’s no leadership.”
The Trump campaign in recent weeks has sought to appeal to “Suburban Housewives,” as the president put it, through appeals to law-and-order and security. Via videos of protesters toppling statues, or police battling demonstrators, the Trump campaign has warned that a Biden-led America would be more dangerous for mothers and their families.
“We won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Lara Trump, who is heading the Women for Trump initiative at the campaign, said in her statement.
Female GOP strategists say the strategy, however, is off the mark and reflects the president’s clear misunderstanding of many female voters. Rather than turning to him as a savior, they’re increasingly blaming him for the chaos and uptick in racial tensions, as well as the increasingly devastating pandemic.
“The president’s law-and-order messaging is falling flat on its face — women aren’t buying it,” said Maureen Shaver, a GOP consultant who lives just outside Minneapolis, where the death of George Floyd in police custody sparked nationwide protests. “This election is a referendum on Trump, and women are leading the way. They’re exhausted by the man, frustrated by the type of leader he’s become.”
The data supports the anecdotal evidence. According to a mid-July Washington Post-ABC poll, women trusted Biden over Trump on questions of “crime and safety” by a 23-point margin, 57 percent to 34 percent. The numbers are similar on the questions of who would better handle the coronavirus outbreak, with women trusting Biden by 28 points over Trump.
For now, some Republican women are trying to shift the focus. Asked about the GOP’s issues with female voters, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) said she has had to “chart her own course,” irrespective of what’s happening in the White House.
“I’m a woman with three kids who as a working mom outside of the home, I have really firsthand experience with a lot of the things I think a lot of moms are experiencing,” she said, noting that she didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and rarely speaks of him on the trail.
Asked whether Trump makes her messaging difficult, she paused for a few seconds and carefully continued: “I don’t follow him on Twitter, so I couldn’t tell you what he’s talking about right now. For me, I think, you need to focus on health care and the economy. And I hope that’s where he’s at, because I think that helps.”