When Republican leaders declared after the last losing presidential election that the party had to do more to attract female voters, this was not what they had in mind.
Before a national audience Tuesday night, Donald Trump railed at Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the White House, describing her as an affirmative action hire by the Democratic Party.
“The only card she has is the woman’s card; she’s got nothing else going,” Trump said Tuesday. “And frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5% of the vote. … The beautiful thing is women don’t like her, OK, and look how well I did with women tonight!”
Bluster? Yes. Reality? No.
Trump has grown increasingly popular among Republican women. But one of his biggest weaknesses as he looks toward a probable November clash with Clinton is the broader pool of female voters. They aren’t all rapt Clinton supporters, but they like her far better than they like him.
His routine broadsides against women — mocking Carly Fiorina’s face, raising the specter of Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycles, passing along an unflattering picture of an opponent’s wife and now asserting that Clinton lacks the “strength” and “stamina” to serve as president — do little to endear him.
And describing a two-term U.S. senator and former secretary of State in dismissive, gender-freighted terms plays straight into the Clinton campaign’s hopes of picking up non-Democratic women in November.
At her victory rally on Tuesday, Clinton explicitly made a play for Democrats, independents and “thoughtful” Republicans as she brushed back against an earlier Trump broadside.
“The other day, Mr. Trump accused me of playing the “woman card,’” Clinton declared. “Well, if fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!”
If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!
Gender insults are nothing new for candidate Clinton. During her 2008 run, young men in the audience chanted “iron my shirts” and cable pundits compared her to hectoring mothers and the deranged bunny-boiling character in the film “Fatal Attraction.” One entrepreneur sold the “Hillary nutcracker,” a plastic representation of Clinton with serrated blades lining her inner thighs.
Trump played on another stereotype, of women being too weak and soft to inhabit the White House — ironic, because in the same bout of criticism he cast Clinton as a warmonger.
In her 2008 campaign, Clinton was reluctant to emphasize the historic nature of her effort to become the first woman president until it was nearly over. This time, she has been more overt, but most of the time her historic reach is most visible in that she is a candidate in a pantsuit and kitten heels, not a button-down and a tie.
It was the mere fact that she is a woman that seemed to set off Trump in recent days. Asked repeatedly in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Wednesday about how, exactly, Clinton has played “the woman’s card,” Trump had no meaningful response.
“You just tell them they’re playing the woman’s card,” Trump replied.
“But what does that mean exactly?” Cuomo said.
“Frankly, if she didn’t she would do very poorly,” Trump said. “I know it because I think if she were a man and she was the way she is, she would get virtually no votes.”
Trump’s because-I-said-so impugning of Clinton’s standing runs counter to all available polls of a general-election matchup with Clinton. In two new national surveys, by Suffolk University/USA Today and by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Clinton defeated Trump overall 50% to 39%.
Her advantage rested on women, who are just over half of the national electorate. In the Suffolk poll, men were split between the two candidates, at 45% each. Women, however, strongly sided with Clinton, 55% to 34%.
In that poll, 42% of women had a favorable view of Clinton. Only 24% of women had a favorable view of Trump. Among men, each candidate was viewed favorably by 33% of voters.
Clinton has worked to build her numbers among women of all ideological stripes with appeals that are personal and policy-oriented.
In Jenkintown, Pa., on Friday, before a group of women gathered in a restaurant, Clinton sympathized with a working mother’s fear of not being able to balance the demands of her life.
“I was listening to you and thinking about, you know, I had a babysitter when Chelsea was a baby and I remember I was supposed to be in court at 9 o’clock, she was sick, the baby-sitter was sick …”
The room erupted in knowing laughter, and Clinton segued smoothly into a pitch for education and gun control measures.
In every recent speech, Clinton has raised the topics of paid family leave, equal pay and other issues that, while not only the purview of women, generally resonate more with them. She has also taken pains to tell men that they, too, should care.
“The equal pay issue is not a women’s issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a fairness issue. It’s, frankly, an economic issue,” she said Saturday in Hartford, Conn. “We have to get incomes raised and we need to give more people a chance to get out into the economy and make the choices they think are best for them and their families.”
Clinton’s pitch, which she has made for years, could have been lifted wholesale from the Republican National Committee’s 2013 report delving into why the party had lost two consecutive presidential elections.
“Be conscious of developing a forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women,” the report said. “The Republican Party needs to offer that same vision and message demonstrating that our policies, principles and vision address the concerns of female voters.”
Trump has blown those aspirations out of the water for his party as he marches toward the nomination. He came into the race already having, in his business career, uttered crass remarks about all manner of women. Indeed, Fox broadcaster Kelly’s feud with Trump began during an August debate when she accurately recounted descriptions he had leveled at women.
“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” she began.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump interjected.
“For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell,” Kelly replied. Trump blamed any criticism of his remarks on the country’s desire to be politically correct.
Clinton has her own problems with some women, to be sure. Her challenger, Bernie Sanders, has attracted huge majorities of young voters, including women, some of whom say they are not willing to side with her just to see a woman win the presidency. Now that Sanders has been all but denied the nomination, Clinton will have to work hard to appeal to those voters, who are both ideologically and generationally distinct from her.
She does have strong support among older women, whose life experiences dovetail more profoundly with her own. At a Manhattan rally for Clinton last week, one of the most rapturous of her campaign, hundreds of women screamed and cheered for Clinton. Many of them saw themselves in her, and many said younger women did not understand the struggles of the past decades.
“The reason is the young have not lived as long and taken as much [abuse],” said 58-year-old photographer Dany Johnson, blushing at her own language. “They’re in for a rude awakening. They really are.”
The same rude awakening seems to await any Republicans still hoping the 2016 election will usher in a more fruitful appeal to women.