We have heard a lot about angry white men and their support for Donald Trump this election cycle. A prevailing narrative is that Trump is pulling support largely among disaffected white men who culturally and economically feel left out of the American mainstream and who reject mainstream Republican orthodoxy on a variety of issues from free trade to immigration reform. Yet, Trump – despite his often hostile, misogynistic language – did relatively well with women voters in the Republican primaries before becoming his party’s presumptive nominee.
As Trump pivots to the general election, he will need to do better with women voters than either Mitt Romney or John McCain to stand a chance of winning in November. To consider the challenges and opportunities that Trump faces in so doing, it is useful to consider what sorts of women in the primaries actually favored Trump as a candidate and how they look compared with Republican women who did not back Trump during the primary season as well as other American women using data from an April survey conducted by PRRI and The Atlantic.
Standing Apart: Diversity Issues
In some ways, Trump women are outliers compared with other American women, particularly on what we might call diversity issues. For instance, 61 percent of Trump women indicated that they are bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who don’t speak English, compared with 42 percent of non-Trump GOP women and 27 percent of other American women.
Moreover, 55 percent of Trump women agree that the government has paid too much attention to the problems of Black Americans in the past couple of decades, compared to just 32 percent of non-Trump GOP women and 25 percent of other American women.
Lastly, half of Trump women support banning Muslims from entering the United States—a level that is far higher than non-Trump GOP women (28 percent) or other American women (18 percent). Trump’s position on the temporary ban of Muslims is part of his aggressive posture toward national security. While his favorability ratings are very low among most Americans, women who are worried about a terrorist attack are twice as likely than other women to rate him more favorably than women who do not, which may give us insight into why such relatively high levels of Trump women support the controversial Muslim ban proposal.
Potential Common Ground: Economic Issues
But here is where support among Trump women shows potential opportunities in a general election: the economy. Compared with Republican women who favored other candidates in the GOP primaries, Trump’s female supporters are more likely to describe their financial situation as poor. Indeed, the PRRI/Atlantic survey shows that 1 in 5 Trump women who describe their own economic situation as poor more closely resembles the economic situation of women who are not Republicans (19 percent) than GOP respondents who did not back Trump (12 percent).
Moreover, 52 percent of Trump women favor raising taxes on Americans who make more than $250,000 annually. While this level of support is not as high as other American women who are not Republicans (68 percent), it is higher than non-Trump GOP women (44 percent). The point here is that if Trump were to turn attention away from the more polarizing aspects of his populist candidacy, such as building walls along the border or banning entire religious groups from entering the country, and instead focus on elements of economic populism, such as raising taxes on the wealthy, such an approach could potentially garner more support from American women in the general electorate.
Of course, the challenge that Trump faces if he were to shift from a populism grounded in isolationism to one focused on economics, he risks turning off some of the most passionate members of his base.
Moreover, despite his recent pledge to “set records with women” voters in November, Trump has spent very little time talking about how he will do that. Instead, the times Trump has talked to or about women have often been to target women he dislikes (Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Megyn Kelly, Susana Martinez, etc.) or simply state his adoration of or attraction to other women. Thus far, those approaches have not appeared effective. Gallup shows 60 percent of Americans don’t have favorable views of Trump; among women it’s even worse at around 70 percent. At roughly this time during the campaign cycles in 2008 and 2012, respectively, Gallup shows that just 37 percent of Americans rated John McCain unfavorably and 41 percent of Americans rated Mitt Romney unfavorably. That means that in addition to the challenges of unifying his support among Republican women, Trump’s uphill climb to attract women voters is particularly steep compared with previous Republican nominees.
Without shifting to substantive messages for why his policies would be good for women, Trump may struggle to reach the peak in female support. The recent release of Trump University “playbooks,” in which recruiters were told to upsell potential applicants, encourage them to take on debt, and play on emotions of the most economically vulnerable, may also present challenges to capitalizing upon a message of economic populism. To win over more women voters, especially those most economically insecure, Trump will need to take another look at his many playbooks, including the playbook by which he is running his campaign.
Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College in Maryland. She is the author or co-author of five books, including School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics, winner of the 2007 Hubert Morken Award from the American Political Science Association for the best book on Religion & Politics. She is also a co-author of the best-selling textbook Women and Politics, with Julie Dolan and Michele L. Swers, now out in its 3rd edition with Rowman and Littlefield. Her latest book, Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, was published by NYU Press in April 2016. She also chairs the board of Public Religion Research Institute, a public, non-partisan polling organization based in Washington DC.