WASHINGTON – The coronavirus pandemic, recession and nationwide racial tensions may have reshaped the 2020 presidential election, but President Donald Trump’s biggest challenge remains the same: winning over women voters who’ve deserted him.
With just four weeks until Election Day, a series of national polls have shown cratering support for Trump among women, setting up the 2020 election to see a gender gap of historic proportions.
As the president’s campaign makes its closing arguments, Lara Trump, a top campaign aide, insists the message for female voters hasn’t changed much since the coronavirus crisis unfolded. The strategy, she said, is to emphasize policy issues, specifically the economy.
“The message for most people, I think, is that they want to get back to normal. People want to know that they can send their kids back to school, that they can go back to work,” Lara Trump said. “I think most people feel like he is the only person who can who can get us back there.”
The president, who was sidelined from public events for more than a week when he battled COVID-19, is trailing his Democratic challenger Joe Biden by nearly 10 points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Recent polls show Biden’s lead is in part powered by his overwhelming support from female voters.
Though the president leads Biden among male likely voters, 55% to 42%, the former vice president has a more than 30-point advantage over Trump, 65% to 34%, among female likely voters, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Lara Trump, the 37-year-old wife of the president’s son, Eric Trump, spoke to USA TODAY Thursday while crisscrossing the key battleground state of Pennsylvania aboard a hot pink bus emblazoned with the phrase “Women for Trump,” an initiative she helped found.
She and other members of the Trump family stepped into the spotlight after the president’s diagnosis as part of the campaign’s “Operation MAGA,” a flurry of in-person and virtual events to fire up supporters as Trump recovers from COVID-19. In the past few weeks she’s traveled to her home state of North Carolina, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida and even Omaha, Nebraska to talk to female voters on the president’s behalf.
She acknowledged the seismic shifts caused by the pandemic that has so far has killed more than 210,000 Americans, left millions jobless and sidelined the president from his jam-packed campaign schedule, but argued Trump’s successful economic record before the coronavirus crisis unfolded would carry him through re-election.
Bright pink bus
“One of the reasons that we have this bright pink bus and we’re traveling all over this country is to make sure we get out there and specifically interface with women,” Lara Trump said. “It is up to us at the campaign to remind women that under this president, women saw historic numbers as far as the economy is concerned.”
Women replaced men as the majority of jobholders, and participation for prime-age women hit a record 19-year high while the Trump administration enjoyed record-low unemployment levels earlier this year. But women also suffered the worst of the economic turmoil wrought by the pandemic. Female unemployment reached double digits in May for the first time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking female joblessness in 1948.
Lara Trump’s strategy may be effective for about 30% of women, according to GOP strategist Sarah Longwell, but it’s unlikely to change the president’s erosion of female support before the election day.
“The problem with that approach is that it represents a very narrow slice of women,” said Longwell, who conducts regular focus groups with women who voted for Trump in 2016 but have soured on the president.
“Lots of women who took a flier on Trump in 2016 because they couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton or because they thought Trump was a businessman who would do good things for the economy, no longer think that,” Longwell said.
Though women have traditionally favored the Democrat since 1992, Trump’s 2016 victory saw the largest gender gap in 36 years of exit polling, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Exit polls from the 2016 election showed that 53% of men backed Trump, while only 42% of women supported him – a gap of 11 percentage points.
The president has done little to bring women back into the fold. A Pew Research Poll poll released Friday found women prefer Biden by 17% (55% to 39%).
While that’s mostly in line with 2016 polls, the Pew survey found 49% of men favor Biden compared to 45% who prefer Trump, a sign the president is losing his edge with men. The president led Clinton among men in 2016 pre-election polls.
But focusing on the president’s policy is not a bad approach, according Sarah Chamberlain, the CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate-Republican advocacy group.
“It’s a good strategy. Women I speak to like the policies the president has put forth,” said Chamberlain, who speaks to a few hundred suburban female voters every week. “The president does not have any problem with his issues. He has a problem with his attitude.”
Chamberlain, who primarily focuses on down-ballot races, acknowledged Trump’s unpopularity poses a threat to other Republicans running for office. She said she’s asked female voters to consider voting a split ticket, voting for Joe Biden for president but supporting Republicans in Congress.
“Suburban women are not opposed to the Republican Party and that’s very good for us moving forward. They’re just opposed to the tweeting,” she said. “I think that is why Women for Trump are out there trying to remind women about the policies.”
Though the campaign has focused on Trump’s successes before the pandemic, polls consistently show the coronavirus remains a blight on the president’s record.
Trump’s approval rating on his handling of the pandemic hit a fresh low after he tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized over the weekend, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Thursday.
The survey, taken Tuesday through Thursday, found 37% of American adults approved of the Trump’s handling of the pandemic while 59% disapproved – a net rating of negative 22 points and his lowest since March 2.
The Trump campaign has tried to close the gap with women by focusing on suburbs, where college-educated women who typically vote Republican abandoned the GOP in 2018 and helped Democrats retake the House of Representatives.
‘Law and order’ message
Trump has promoted himself as a “law and order” president, focusing on safety and security amid ongoing social upheaval over police brutality and racial injustice.
The campaign has used footage of violent clashes between police and demonstrators and images of protesters destroying statues from over the summer to warn supporters: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
“If you don’t have safety and security, ultimately nothing else really matters,” Lara Trump said. “What I have heard, primarily from women as we’ve been on these bus tours, is that they believe Donald Trump is the only candidate that will make sure that we have safety and security.”
But that message may have backfired. Longwell said while there are plenty of women who do support law and order, they’re also blaming the president for stoking racial divisions across the country.
“It’s the thing that they give voice to amid a host of frustrations with his handling of COVID, with the economy, but with these women there’s just a real sense that the racial division is out of control and he makes it worse,” she said. “It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Trump’s performance in last month’s presidential debate, rife with frequent interruptions and mudslinging, may have added fuel to the fire.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for the debate, conceded after the debate he may have been a “little too hot” in his performance.
Lara Trump said it was frustrating there were interruptions “all around” but shrugged off the acrimony between Trump, Biden and moderator Chris Wallace as the “nature of these debates.”
“I think it’s very – it’s so hard to put yourself in the president’s shoes. This is a man who hasn’t been on a debate stage since the 2016 debates versus Hillary Clinton,” she said. “So look, I think he was being himself and you know, some people really love that about him and some people, it’s not their favorite aspect of him.”
A CNN poll conducted by SSRS after the debate and after Trump revealed he tested positive for COVID-19 showed that Biden expanded his lead over Trump among women, 66% to 32% compared to 57% to 37% in September.
Longwell, who runs focus groups of both college educated and non-college educated female voters, said the debate performance “didn’t necessarily make them ready to vote for Joe Biden, but it did make them close the door on Donald Trump.”
“Disappointing and sad is what I left with. I felt bad for Biden and I felt bad for the mediator, because of the complete disrespect,” one Arizona voter told Longwell. “I was hoping I was going to come away with more, I’m leaning more [toward Biden] because Trump is disrespectful and embarrassing, but I’m looking forward to the other two debates.”
Sparring between the candidates was not the only thing that raised eyebrows at the first presidential debate. Trump’s family, who wore masks into the Cleveland Clinic as required by the facility’s COVID-19 safety rules, removed their masks after taking their seats.
Lara Trump was adamant that staff members did not ask members of the family to put their masks on, adding: “that might have been a different scenario.”
She compared it to wearing a mask at a restaurant, removing it to eat and putting it back on to move around.
“We did what we thought had been asked of us. No one ever said anything otherwise when we were there,” she said.
Trump tested positive for the coronavirus two days later.
Since the early days of the pandemic, the president has rarely worn face masks, which scientists say is one of the most effective ways to contain the spread of the coronavirus. He’s repeatedly mocked Biden for wearing one while West Wing officials regularly opted against donning face coverings before several aides tested positive for COVID-19.
The president’s Sept. 26 Rose Garden announcement of his Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett has been referred to as a “super spreader” event since more than a dozen people who attended have since been infected.
Lara Trump, for her part, has been spotted wearing masks at indoor events for “Women for Trump” following the president’s diagnosis, but said that she and her husband Eric are not tested unless there’s a concern they’ve been exposed.
“At a certain point you have to understand that people are going to do what what they want to do and if we’re at an outdoor venue, and people decide they don’t want to wear their masks you know what this is, this is America they’re, they’re allowed to do that,” she said.
With just 24 days left until the election, time is running out for Trump to find a message that works for women. But strategists agree the No.1 issue among women remains health care, a priority that has become all the more urgent amid the pandemic, especially for people with pre-existing conditions and their families.
The president has been vague on his plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s signature health care act. Last month he signed an executive order pledging to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions, which is already enshrined in the ACA, but the directive would require legislation and does little to outline how it would achieve that.
The Trump administration is also behind a federal case to overturn the ACA, known as Obamacare, that will go to the Supreme Court on Nov. 10 – one week after Election Day.
Chamberlain is concerned a lack of focus on health care will lead to a similar outcome like the midterm election in 2018, when women rejected the Republican party over health care concerns.
“They’re concerned about what is coming out of the Supreme Court November 10 – they are aware of that – and they don’t want their families to go broke trying to deal with an illness that is not covered under insurance,” she said.
“We really are having another election on health care, as we did in 2018, and I’m just hoping it’s not going to happen in 2020 but it’s certainly starting to line up that way.”