'Till death do us part' in life, but these married couples part ways at the ballot box

The North Carolina couple won't even watch the news in the same room anymore. He is voting for Donald Trump to cancel out her vote for Hillary Clinton. The tension has brought their marriage to its lowest point, she says.

“I really, genuinely think the marriage is the worst it has ever been,” said Tasha, who along with the others in a Charlotte, N.C., focus group Tuesday night gave just her first name.

“It is a train wreck. I do not even want to hear it,” she said. “He has to put headphones on to listen to his Fox News. It sends me over the edge.”

Asked later to name one positive attribute about Clinton, Tasha’s husband, Kyler, struggled.

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“There might have been something before this campaign,” he said. “But I hate her.”

In most elections, married couples tend to vote alike. But this year, polls indicate that married women are spurning the Republican nominee at levels not seen in decades. In households around the country, husbands and wives who have traditionally voted the same ticket are parting ways at the ballot box, creating tension — and denial.

In some cases, husbands are engaging in household espionage to keep Democratic canvassers and mailers from getting to their wives. In other cases, they are just putting blinders on.

Executives at the AFL-CIO’s massive door-knocking operation, Working America, say they get regular reports of canvassers being told to get lost by men who answer the door — only to have the wives come searching the neighborhood for them later.

“We’ll knock on a door and the husband will say, ‘We want nothing to do with you,’ and slam the door our face,” said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of the group. “About 20 minutes later, his wife runs out to find us and tell us, ‘He had it wrong, I agree with you.’”

One canvasser in Columbus, Ohio, reported three such incidents in a week. Others talked of women married to Trump voters whispering out of earshot of their spouses that they will be voting for Clinton. 

A recent poll suggests many husbands are in denial or in the dark. Asked in a YouGov/Economist survey earlier this month whom they think their spouses would vote for, 33% of married men said Clinton would get their wives’ votes. They were way off. Among married women, 45% said they were with her. 

“Many women don’t want to introduce conflict in their families over politics,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Women just say, ‘Sure, honey,’ and then go and vote their way.”

“‘Sure, honey,’ might be a record high this year,” she said.

The gender gap, in which women are more likely to vote for Democrats and men for Republicans, is a well-known reality of American politics. But what’s less often understood is that the divide has usually been widest with unmarried women, who side with Democratic candidates by large margins.

A majority of married women have not voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996. Now, Hillary Clinton seems on track to get their votes. 

Clinton’s success may in part reflect her status as the first woman to win a major-party nomination. But it also reflects the uneasiness many female voters have with her rival, who has been caught boasting about his unwanted sexual advances and has been accused by at least 10 women of harassment or assault.

Female voters tell pollsters they are anxious about Trump’s bombast, the kind of role model he would be for their children, and the prospect of him having control of the nuclear launch codes.

“I’m pretty sure there is not 100% truthfulness in wives talking to their husbands about who they are voting for,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who co-organized Tuesday night’s focus group in Charlotte.

The focus group, which reporters were invited to watch long distance, is part of a multi-year project sponsored by Wal-Mart to gauge the attitudes of mothers who shop at its stores, a key swing voting bloc in recent elections.

But while Democrats hope that the splitting of so many households this year may start a trend, Newhouse is skeptical. This is a Trump phenomenon, he said.

“It is a classic nose-holder election,” he said. “People are holding their noses and voting. There are very few people in love with their candidate.”

Democratic strategists see opportunity nonetheless.

“Once you vote independently of your spouse, you may end up liking it,” said Lake.

Democrats have been busy fine-tuning techniques for communicating with women in households where the husband is voting Trump and may not know — or not accept — that his wife is not on board.

This kind of stealth persuasion has a long history. Thirty years ago, it often involved sending personal letters that did not have the appearance of campaign mail to the woman in the house, to avoid the husband intercepting it and tossing it in the trash.

Today, the messaging is more sophisticated. Email inboxes and Facebook accounts are targeted with pitches customized to the concerns female voters have expressed, and they are compounded with television advertisements that take aim at some of Trump’s behavior.

In the Wal-Mart-shopper focus groups, an issue that arose repeatedly was the way Trump has disparaged critics. His mocking of a disabled reporter stood out.

The anxiety of mothers, Lake said, can be summed up in a comment from a voter at a Michigan focus group she conducted:

“She said, ‘I want to be able to say to my kids, I am fixing dinner; go watch the president on TV. With Donald Trump as president, you wouldn’t dare do that.’”

The split-household phenomenon may be one factor driving the high level of tension that this election is causing voters. Nearly 1 in 4 likely voters says the campaign has caused them “serious stress,” according to an ABC News tracking poll published Tuesday.

A Pew Research survey released earlier this month found that 41% of voters who are not supporting the same candidate as their spouse have had an argument about the election.

“This is the first election that my husband and I have an agreement not to talk about who we are voting for,” said Coretta, an office manager who took part in a Wal-Mart moms focus group in Las Vegas. 

“Before, we would always talk about it, and we almost always agreed. But this election, we don’t want to tell each other what we are doing.”

evan.halper@latimes.com

On Twitter: @EvanHalper

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