What do voters hear when Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in interview after interview, praises his running mate Donald Trump’s “broad shoulders”?
What do they hear when Trump repeatedly criticizes Hillary Clinton for not looking presidential — “and you need a presidential look”? Or when he time and again calls into question her strength and stamina?
Many people, to use one of Trump’s favorite phrasings, hear an effort to raise questions about whether a woman can serve as president.
“Could it be more obvious?” asked pollster Christine Matthews, who has studied women voters for years amid work on Republican political campaigns.
Trump also engaged in a lengthy dispute with Fox broadcaster Megyn Kelly over his history of caustic remarks toward women, and he sniped about the face and voice of opponent Carly Fiorina.
Defenders insist Trump is an equal opportunity offender, as likely to label Republican Jeb Bush as “low energy” as he is to critique Clinton as “weak.” And Trump supporters say they do not consider the candidate’s remarks insulting to women, by any stretch.
“I don’t think he said she was weak because she’s a woman,” said Beth Siracuse, who lives in Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Whatever his remarks, she said as she drew a contrast with Clinton: “It isn’t as bad as lying to the American people or calling us names.”
Others, including Clinton partisans, said they were offended.
“He’s racist, misogynist,” said Cheryl Shilling, another Upper Arlington resident. His remarks, she said, are “terrible — especially toward women.”
It’s hard to know whether attitudes toward Clinton have to do with her being Clinton, or that she’s a woman.
Testosterone has infused Trump’s candidacy from its inception. He has cast himself as a strong and tough leader, and his opponents — including some men — as wimpy alternatives. In one primary debate, taking offense at criticism of his hand size, he made a blunt reference to his sexual prowess.
In the carnival atmosphere that often surrounds Trump rallies, the message is far from subtle. Buttons and T-shirts critique the size of Clinton’s thighs and breasts, make a play on words about her engaging in a sex act and cast her as a “bitch” and Trump as “someone with balls.”
That sensibility is part of what has led women, on average, to be far more skeptical than men of both Trump and the impact he would have on their lives as president. And that in turn has threatened Trump’s efforts to defeat Clinton’s historic campaign.
Asked in a new CBS/New York Times poll whether Trump respects women, 53% of women voters said “not much” or “not at all.” Only 20% said he had “a lot” of respect for women. The sentiment split on partisan lines, but a majority of independent women voters also held a negative view of Trump’s respect for women.
Among women voters, 45% felt that a Clinton presidency would be good for women; only 12% said the same about a Trump presidency.
It’s also not clear whether Trump will persuade any voters he doesn’t already have. Views of Trump — and of Clinton — are very firmly held at this point, according to Matthews, whose partner ran an anti-Trump super PAC earlier this year.
“I don’t think significant numbers of women will change their minds,” she said.
But Clinton’s candidacy is a first, so some conclusions are unknown.
“When you look beyond the presidential level, voters are amenable to women candidates,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C. “At the presidential level it’s trickier — we only have one case.”
“It’s hard to know whether attitudes toward Clinton have to do with her being Clinton, or that she’s a woman.”
Women accounted for 10 million more voters than men in the 2012 presidential election, which accentuates the need to get maximum support from them, said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
Gender gaps — the distance between two candidates’ support among men and women — have marked every presidential contest since 1980, she said. A double-digit gap between genders secured victory for President Obama in 2012 and Bill Clinton in 1996; in recent polls, Hillary Clinton has narrowly exceeded the gaps that benefited those Democrats.
Bystrom said that Clinton’s edge derives not only from her own gender pitch — she has detailed her life as a mother and grandmother and cited her long experience in pushing women’s rights — but from limitations in Trump’s approach.
In his 2004 reelection campaign, George W. Bush delivered two different security messages, Bystrom said. To men, his campaign emphasized law and order; to women, a promise to keep them and their children safe. The latter worked better with some women, she said.
Trump “is talking about it in heavily male terms” that are less appealing to women, she said.
The Republican nominee has nodded lately to his difficulties among women. Last week, he unveiled a child-care policy — although its rollout was marred by his false claim that Clinton had no such plan herself.
For Trump, the difficulty in making up much ground among women was demonstrated in recent surveys in this must-win state by Suffolk University. Polls taken in July and September showed that even as Trump overtook Clinton, she retained the same hold on Ohio’s women voters.
Trump’s Ohio campaign leaders insist the candidate’s comments have had no impact on his standing.
“There are the things that the press will focus on at times and then there the things that the voters focus on, and I think we’re doing much better with what voters are focusing on right now,” said campaign director Robert Paduchik.
His campaign recently launched a push to attract women voters with Trump’s messages on national security, the economy and social issues. Kamilah Prince, who organized a statewide women’s tour for Trump, said voters are concerned with those issues.
He’s not your retail politician where people are taught ‘don’t ever say this thing.’ And that what makes him organic and real.
“You know, he’s new to this,” she said. “He’s not your retail politician where people are taught ‘don’t ever say this thing.’ And that what makes him organic and real…. Right or wrong, people appreciate that honesty and that he’s just organic, and he is what he is.”
But Clinton operatives contend Trump has given the Democratic campaign an opening among Republican and independent women unavailable to previous party nominees. To boost those odds, Clinton has been airing ads showing Trump’s insults to women and others and emphasizing her proposals.
In a “Tonight Show” appearance aired Monday, Clinton told host Jimmy Fallon that navigating a presidential campaign in a way that left a candidate appearing both serious and relatable is “especially tricky for women. It just is.”
But she has generally avoided complaining about gender-based remarks from Trump or his allies, some of whom recently said she had not smiled enough during a recent interview about national security.
She received high-level backup on Sunday from Obama, speaking at a New York fundraiser.
“I will also say that there’s a reason why we haven’t had a woman president; that we as a society still grapple with what it means to see powerful women,” Obama said. “And it still troubles us in a lot of ways, unfairly, and that expresses itself in all sorts of ways.”
Clinton campaign officials are confident Trump will not be able to convince substantial numbers of voters to question a woman as president. Nor, according to Clinton’s Ohio director, Chris Wyant, will any softer approach Trump adopts erase memories of his earlier remarks.
“He has such a long history of making those comments,” Wyant said. “We still see a real opportunity.”