In the closing stretch of the presidential race, Hillary Clinton is trying to harness women’s anger over Donald Trump’s behavior into a surge of support for her and other female candidates.
It’s an effort that harks back to Democratic victories that stemmed from similar controversy a quarter-century ago, in an election that became known as the “Year of the Woman.”
On Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama, the most popular figure on the national stage, campaigned alongside Clinton in North Carolina. Two days earlier, Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigned with Clinton in New Hampshire. Each delivered a “hear me roar” message prodding female voters to help Clinton defeat Trump.
“We know the influence our president has on our children,” Obama told thousands of supporters in Winston-Salem. “They are taking it all in.… What kind of president do we want for them?”
Clinton, introducing Obama, cast Nov. 8 as a referendum on Trump’s words and actions.
“I wish I didn’t have to say this, but, indeed, dignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot this election,” the candidate said.
Polls show female voters siding with Clinton by near-record levels in many key states, as support for her and antipathy toward Trump merge to give her leads in most of the battleground states that the Republican nominee needs to win.
The move by female voters toward Clinton in the final weeks of the campaign offsets a similar hardening of support for Trump by his key audience, blue-collar white men.
In a campaign featuring the first female presidential nominee of a major party, gender was inevitably going to play a role.
The surprise is that what has super-charged gender’s role is not Clinton’s historic quest, but the nature of her opponent — specifically, Trump’s vulgar comments about women on a 2005 video and subsequent allegations of sexual assault made against him.
The gender focus has expanded from there in unpredictable ways. Trump’s criticism of Clinton in their third debate as a “nasty woman” has been embraced by the candidate and her supporters, prompting “Nasty woman” T-shirts and leading Warren to issue a swaggering promise that on election day, “we nasty women” will defeat him.
The aftershocks have not been limited to campaign events, nor to Democrats. Prominent Republican women have expressed anger at Trump and at their party for backing him.
On Wednesday, in an extraordinary several minutes on Fox News, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich angrily accused Megyn Kelly, one of the most prominent women in television news, of being “fascinated by sex” for asking about the allegations against Trump.
“You know what, Mr. Speaker? I am not fascinated by sex,” Kelly said. “But I am fascinated by the protection of women and understanding what we’re getting in the Oval Office.”
Their dispute ended with Kelly suggesting that Gingrich “take [his] anger issues” elsewhere.
Trump, who earlier in the campaign had used loaded gender references against Kelly as well as Clinton and others, went out of his way Wednesday to congratulate Gingrich during an event in Washington.
“That was an amazing interview. We don’t play games, Newt. We don’t play games,” Trump said.
The swirl of gender issues in this campaign and the tone taken as election day nears echo the 1992 campaign. The success of female candidates that year was powered in large part by women mobilized by court decisions threatening abortion rights and the emotional fallout from the 1991 accusations of harassment leveled by law professor Anita Hill against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Thomas secured his seat on the court after a national uproar, but the sentiments unleashed as senators interrogated Hill on television helped propel a record number of women into U.S. Senate seats one year later. Strong support from women also helped Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, win his first term as president.
Clinton and her campaign are trying to funnel similar outrage over Trump’s words and alleged deeds into votes for her and female Senate candidates. So far, however, the benefit seems limited to Clinton herself, with few signs as yet of a top-to-bottom ballot wave.
Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, said Clinton was embracing the latest turn of events in the same way she had earlier turned Trump’s complaint that she was playing “the woman’s card” into a stump speech chant to “deal me in.”
“It’s really tapping into something deep for women,” Walsh said.
The fact that Trump’s behavior prompted some Republicans to turn their backs on him after sticking with him through his comments about Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, the disabled and other groups underscores the heft of the group Clinton is now trying to direct, Walsh said.
“What you see here is the power of the women’s vote,” she said.
In North Carolina, a traditionally Republican state where Clinton holds a narrow lead over Trump, messages to women dominate both sides’ campaign ads.
In one Clinton ad, an Army veteran and life-long Republican with three daughters talks about his anger at Trump’s comments. “I want my girls to grow up proud and strong,” he says. “Donald Trump’s America is not the country I fought for.”
Another Clinton ad, replete with images of mothers and children, features a girl asking Clinton how to prevent bullying. “We need more love and kindness,” Clinton says.
Her opponents, too, have women voters in their sights. One ad paid for by a pro-Trump super PAC hits Clinton for donations her family foundation received from countries that, among other things, don’t allow women to drive and punish rape victims.
“How can we trust the Clintons to fight for us when they’ve sold out millions of women already?” the narrator in the ad asks.
Yet it’s clear Trump has the bigger problem among women. In a poll released Thursday from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, only 38% of voters said Trump had even a “fair amount” of respect for women. And more than 4 in 10 women said he had “no respect” for them.
The Trump campaign hasn’t directly tried to allay the concerns of women, apart from Trump’s steadfast denials that he forcibly kissed women and grabbed their genitals, as he boasted on the 2005 tape of being able to do.
He has cast his accusers as liars and vowed to sue them after the election.
“They don’t understand who the people are that they’re losing,” said Katie Packer, a veteran Republican strategist and Trump opponent. “It’s not about the sex; it’s about the crime and the indignity and the accountability of somebody who has bragged about this.… To be constantly treating this as no big deal — that’s the insult.”
There are some signs of a rejection of Trump by GOP women. In North Carolina, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray found 6% of Republican women surveyed siding with Clinton, twice the percentage that backed President Obama in 2012, according to exit polls.
In New Hampshire, another swing state, an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll published Wednesday found Clinton with a 25-point lead among women overall, up from 14 points a month earlier. Among men, Trump led by 8 points — slightly down from his 12-point margin in September.
In early voting in North Carolina, women have cast 7% more ballots than they had at this point in 2012, according to figures compiled by Catawba College professor J. Michael Bitzer. That presumably, but not certainly, aids Clinton.
One of those Clinton supporters is Angela Middleton, who sat outside the Wake Forest University arena after Clinton’s and Obama’s speeches, smiling as a light rain began to fall.
“I look at the record, what she stands for: equality,” Middleton said of Clinton. “She’s a female. She understands the struggle, the fight. I may not agree with all of her policies, but I believe in her ability.”