GOP watches as Trump’s problems with suburban women go on display
Former President Trump increasingly looks like the favorite to win the GOP’s presidential nomination, but that strength masks what many Republicans see as a huge weakness against President Biden: Trump’s problems with suburban women.
All of Trump’s vulnerabilities with the key demographic were on high display during a rowdy town hall last week with CNN, where at one point the former president called moderator Kaitlan Collins a “nasty person.”
Trump also mocked a woman who won a civil lawsuit against him for sexual battery and defamation, and he dodged questions on abortion — a top issue that has increasingly been a strength for Democrats since the Supreme Court, which includes three justices who Trump nominated, overturned Roe v. Wade.
E. Jean Carroll filed a lawsuit last year accusing the former president of raping her in 1996 in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room, though the jury did not find Trump liable of rape in the trial. Trump has denied Carroll’s accusations and appealed the verdict on Thursday.
At Wednesday’s town hall, he recounted his version of the 1996 encounter, drawing laughs from the audience, which appeared to be largely sympathetic to him.
“What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you’re playing hanky panky in a dressing room,” Trump said.
When asked if he believes the jury’s verdict would deter women from voting for him, Trump said: “No, I don’t think so.”
And his critics say it likely will not in a Republican primary.
“It’s incredibly misogynistic and damaging, but it’s also old news,” said Jennifer Horn, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee and co-founder of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project. “This is who Trump has always been, and the Republican Party has embraced it.”
“I think that he probably believes he can win the general election with the same behavior we saw the other night,” Horn said.
The CNN town hall came just days after a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Trump leading Biden in a general election, sparking worry among Democrats. According to the survey, Trump leads Biden by 7 points in a hypothetical matchup.
“If you ask any woman their number one priority, it is to ensure their children are safe, healthy, and prosperous. Joe Biden’s policies have made Americans less safe, addicted to Chinese fentanyl, and struggling to afford basic necessities, like groceries and gas,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for MAGA Inc., who is based in New Hampshire. “That is why women, and the majority of Americans, will overwhelmingly reject Joe Biden in 2024 and vote for President Trump to make America great again.”
During a post-town hall focus group on CNN, one woman interviewed said she did not “really care” about Trump’s comments about Carroll during the town hall.
“I don’t know enough about the case. Women can be victims of abuse. Women can also make up stories,” the woman said.
Two other women interviewed said the comments made them feel uncomfortable and noted they also had not been closely following the case.
And it would not be the first time Trump’s disparaging comments about women did not interfere with his general election chances.
Roughly one month before the 2016 general election, audio from 2005 was leaked of Trump openly bragging about groping women while he was en route to film an episode of Access Hollywood. While the leaked tape earned him negative coverage and condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans at the time, Trump went on to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the following month.
Trump’s critics argue 2024 will present a different challenge to the former president, given he faces legal consequences in the E. Jean Carroll case.
“Her story was so powerful,” said Debbie Walsh, director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “But I think for sort-of-moderate Republican women who watch this, is this all becoming a bridge too far? And it was a bridge too far for them before, so what about him is different?”
Suburban women voters have also largely turned their backs on Republicans since the former president was elected in 2016. According to CBS News exit polling from 2018, 53 percent of suburban women voters said they voted for Democrats in 2018, up from 47 percent in 2014 and 51 percent in 2016. In 2020, Biden won 54 percent of suburban voters in general, according to the Pew Research Center. And in last year’s midterm elections, suburban voters, including women in this group, helped deliver major victories to Democrats in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia, with many of Trump’s endorsed candidates facing defeat.
“Many of those women the first time around they voted for him because he was a Republican, and we know that party is the best predictor of a vote,” Walsh said. “But the lived experience of Donald Trump turned them away from the Republican Party.”
“In the same way that he kept the Republican Party from winning big in the midterm elections this year, then he will make it difficult for the Republican Party in a general election,” she said.
On top of that, many have pointed to how the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade — the 1973 landmark ruling that federally legalized abortion — swayed women voters in the midterms. According to the Brookings Institution, 47 percent of female voters felt angry about the decision, and 83 percent of those women voted for a Democratic candidate.
Biden and Democrats are telegraphing that they plan on elevating abortion access as a key issue in 2024, while Republicans are working to improve their messaging on the issue.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has called for Republicans to put Democrats “on the defense” by labeling them as extreme on abortion, while GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley has called for a “national consensus” on the issue. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has trailed Trump in the polls, signed into law a six-week ban on most abortions in Florida last month. DeSantis’s critics have called the stance extreme, arguing it will drive away moderate and swing voters.
Trump, on the other hand, dodged a question from a female voter Wednesday evening about how he would plan to appeal to women voters in the state concerned about the Supreme Court’s decision. The former president called the decision “a great victory,” but he did not specify whether he would support a federal ban on the procedure if elected.
“Getting rid of Roe v. Wade was an incredible thing for pro-life because it gave pro-life something to negotiate with,” Trump said. “Deals are being made. Deals are going to be made.”
Julie Miles, the New Hampshire voter who posed the question to Trump, later told ABC News the former president “didn’t actually answer” her question.
“One of the problems with Independent women obviously is the abortion and his issue at the town hall wasn’t the position he took with abortion,” Horn said. “He took no position, but he just spoke about it in a reckless and dismissive manner, as if it was just not a big deal,” she said, likening his answer to “a business deal.”
It’s still unclear and too far out to know what role abortion access will play in 2024. It’s also unclear what role the economy will play in voters’ decision-making because it’s normally a top-of-mind issue. Republicans have continued to hit Biden on this as inflation continues and interest rates rise. The Washington-Post ABC News poll also shows Trump dominating Biden on handling the economy, with 54 percent of Americans saying Trump did a better job of handling the economy than Biden has done in his term so far. Only 36 percent said they preferred Biden’s handling.
“I know Biden’s poll numbers are not great, but at the end of the day, when you’re really looking at whatever we watch in this campaign, if it is Donald Trump, it may not be a vote for Joe Biden, but a vote just to please make it stop with Donald Trump,” Walsh said.
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