Hillary Clinton’s Trump card: Female swing voters

"I had to be harsh in order to win," Donald Trump said after primary victories in Michigan and Mississippi. "I can see women not liking that."

“I had to be harsh in order to win,” Donald Trump said after primary victories in Michigan and Mississippi. “I can see women not liking that.”

(Rhona Wise / AFP/Getty Images)

Get Carol Roszka talking about why she does not want Hillary Clinton in the White House, and it is hard to get her to stop. Roszka vents about how Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attacks was disgraceful, her feminism is phony and her ambition is off-putting.

“She wants to be elected at all costs,” said Roszka, a 63-year-old from suburban Detroit who often votes Republican, as she did in last week’s primary.

Yet Roszka says when she votes in November, it will very likely be for Clinton.

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Donald Trump has driven her to it. “I do not want Trump under any circumstances,” she said of the New York billionaire who looks headed to appear on the ballot alongside Clinton, after both candidates won a round of key states Tuesday. “So much so that I will not vote for the Republican Party at all if he runs.”

Roszka is part of what you might call Clinton’s coalition of the unwilling. They are the independent and moderate Republican women who don’t like Clinton – some even despise her – but are so repulsed by Trump that they are already preparing to vote for the Democrat they anticipate will be on the ballot in November if that’s what it takes to keep him out of office. Either that, or sit out the election altogether.

This loose coalition is large and growing.

More Republican women view Trump more negatively than positively, according to Gallup. And in a hypothetical matchup with Clinton, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found this month that Trump loses the women’s vote by 21 points. A taste of what Trump could expect as nominee came when an anti-Trump super PAC run by Republicans began airing an ad Monday titled “Real Donald Trump Quotes About Women.” Female actors read aloud such Trump remarks as his summation of former rival Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”

Trump’s problem with women has driven more than a few Republican strategists to warn that his name on the ticket in November would be a surefire path to their party’s defeat.

“If the election is close and looks like Donald Trump could be president, there are Republican women who will say, ‘I can’t believe I am saying this, but I am going to vote for Hillary Clinton,’” said Christine Matthews, whose firm specializes in helping Republicans target women. The only other scenario she foresees with Trump on the ballot is those voters staying home because Clinton’s lead heading into election day is big enough to win without them having to commit the unconscionable act of voting for her.

Trump’s strategy of hyper-targeting disaffected, white working-class men may be bringing new voters to the polls, but it is coming at a heavy cost, exacerbating the GOP’s chronic troubles luring female voters in presidential elections, according to Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster. Trump is taking an approach that is exactly the opposite of what the Republican Party’s famous “autopsy” report following Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 advised: Adopt policies that are more inclusive to broaden the party’s base of support.


“It is very dangerous math,” Anderson said of Trump’s strategy. “It is unlikely to pay off in the general election.”

Trump is characteristically unconcerned.

The unease this large swath of the electorate feels toward him, he says, will pass once he has locked in the nomination. With typical Trump bombast, he explains it in a way that many of those very women are sure to find insulting.

“To be victorious, frankly, I had to be very tough,” he said on MSNBC last week, following electoral victories in Michigan and Mississippi. “I had to be very sharp and smart and nasty. And I can see women not necessarily liking the tone, but also I had to get to the finish line … I had to be harsh in order to win. I can see women not liking that. That will change.”

Some Democrats warn not to discount such vows, as Trump has proven masterful at adapting to the contours of the race. “Donald has surprised everybody at every step of the way,” said Ed Rendell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

For a lot of women, though, anxieties about Trump run much deeper than tone.

“He’s sexist; he’s racist; he says things that will cause businesses to lose money,” said Roszka. “He wants to be king or emperor. He does not want to be president.”

Kelly Grayburn, an occupational therapist in South Carolina, recoiled when asked what she will do if Trump is on the ballot in November. “I can’t even say the words,” said Grayburn, a Marco Rubio supporter, before bringing her voice to a whisper. “I would seriously consider voting for Hillary.”

Another South Carolina Republican voter, Cindy Hipszer, said she would need divine intervention to guide her on how to vote if, heaven forbid, Trump is on the November ballot. Her plan: “Pray hard. … Be on our knees for days.”

Not all women share that view. Millions will have voted for Trump by the time the Republican primary ends, many of them drawn by his tough line on immigration, his repudiation of international trade deals, his hawkish talk on national defense. They might agree with the billionaire that his off-color remarks about women, his disparagement of Mexican immigrants and his warnings about Muslims are not the words of a misogynist, racist and xenophobe but of a truth talker who will not be bound by political correctness.

“This is the first time I’ve felt excited about a presidential candidate since Reagan,” said Kimberly Dial, an employment agency owner who organized an event for Trump supporters recently at a gun range in McDonough, Ga. “He speaks his mind. He’s not politically correct ... not worried about who he offends.”

Trump’s problem is that so many more women find him problematic than inspiring. When a Washington Post/ABC News poll recently explored how Republican women would vote if the primary were winnowed down to Trump and just one other rival, barely any of the women not already aligned with Trump picked him.

“I don’t think there is a lot of middle ground about Donald Trump,” said Matthews. “Voters have pretty much figured out if he is somebody they support and could support or not at this point.” That does not bode well if Trump plans to ease off in the general election from some of the many things he has said in recent months – and years – that have women expressing more anxiety about him than any major party front-runner in recent memory.

“There is so much out there in terms of things he has said, or tweeted or done not only in this campaign but before now that I think women might find particularly disturbing,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “These things can be brought out against him, and they are not going to go away.”

They will target voters like Margot Kahl, a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz in Michigan deeply unsettled by the prospect of Trump being the Republican choice in November. “If Donald Trump would win, I don’t know what would happen to our world,” she said.

Halper reported from Grosse Point Woods and Mascaro from Columbia, S.C. | @evanhalper | @lisamascaro


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