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What Women Want

Here’s what women who voted for Trump in 2016 are saying about him now.
July 10, 2020
What Women Want
But not anymore. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

One of the great mysteries of 2016 was why so many women voted for Donald Trump.

Despite being caught on a hot mic talking about grabbing women “by the pu**y,” nearly 20 sexual assault allegations, and well known accounts of treating his multiple wives horribly, Trump still received the votes of 44 percent of white college-educated women and 61 percent of non-college-educated white women.

Many observers were doubly confused because they had expected Hillary Clinton, as the first major party female nominee, to be especially strong with women. And she wasn’t. Trump did poorly with African-American and Hispanic women, because he did poorly with all African-Americans and Hispanics. But he managed to actually win a narrow plurality among white women.

But that mystery has been easy to solve. Over the last three years I conducted dozens of focus groups with both college-educated and non-college-educated female Trump voters. And the answer given most commonly for why they voted for Donald Trump is “I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I voted against Hillary Clinton.”

In 2016, Democrats understood that Hillary Clinton was a deeply polarizing candidate. But even they didn’t grasp the full magnitude of it. Right-leaning and Republican female voters had spent more than a decade hating both Clintons, and they didn’t stop just because Hillary’s opponent was an unrepentant misogynist.

In fact, Bill Clinton’s legacy of similarly disgusting behavior with women—and Hillary Clinton’s defense of her husband—had the effect of blunting Trump’s own execrable track record. These women voters decided that either way, there’d be a guy with a long history of sexual malfeasance living in the White House.

But after Trump’s victory, something started happening almost immediately. Women—even those who voted for Trump in 2016—began shifting away from the president.

In the 2018 midterm elections that delivered Democrats 40 congressional seats and control of the House of Representatives, support for Republicans from both college-educated women and non-college-educated white women dropped by 5 points.

And the relationship has gotten worse.

A recent New York Times Upshot/Siena College Poll showed Trump trailing Joe Biden by 22 points with women. That’s 9 points bigger than the gender gap was in 2016.

And while much has been made of college-educated women in the suburbs ditching Trump, a recent ABC/Washington Post survey shows that Trump’s support with white non-college-educated women has fallen by 11 points.

After nearly three years of conducting focus groups with women who held their nose and voted for Trump in 2016, this decline hasn’t surprised me. He was holding on to many of those voters with a wing and a prayer and strong economy. When everything began to fall apart, these female Trump leaners went running for the exits.

From the beginning of his presidency these women gave Trump low marks for his tweeting and divisiveness—but they also gave him credit for the strong economy and relative prosperity of the last few years.

His perceived business acumen was one of the top reasons many of these women were willing to take a flyer on him in the first place. Never forget that for many Americans, their impressions of Trump were formed less by his presidential campaign than by his role on The Apprentice where he was, through the wonders of editing and reality TV storytelling, presented as a decisive, successful businessman.

In late 2019 and early 2020 with a roaring economy and a bunch of abstract foreign policy scandals consuming the media and the elites whom these voters generally despise and distrust, even Trump-voting-women who rated the president’s performance as “very bad” weren’t entirely sure what they would do in 2020. There was still a crowded field of Democratic candidates—many of whom were living, breathing representations of the far-left caricature that Republicans paint of Democrats.

But by March of 2020, everything had changed.

First, Joe Biden blew out Bernie Sanders and the rest of the Democratic field.

In my focus groups, Biden had consistently outperformed all other Democrats among the female Trump voters who were souring on the president. In hypothetical head-to-head matchups, almost none of the women would take Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren over Trump, but a handful would typically (if not enthusiastically) pick Biden over Trump.

It cannot be overstated how much better of a candidate Joe Biden is for attracting disaffected Republican voters—especially women—than any of the other Democrats who ran this cycle.

Then on March 11 the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. Two days later, the United States declared a state of emergency.

No one in America will forget what happened next: Lockdowns; PPE shortages; 130,000 deaths; staggering unemployment.

And every night on television voters saw a president both unwilling and incapable of providing clear and coherent leadership.

Since March, I have conducted the focus groups virtually and watched Trump’s position with women weaken in real time.

Interestingly, in the early days of the pandemic the women in the focus groups were frustrated with Trump, but didn’t necessarily hold him responsible for everything that was happening. He hadn’t done great, they said, but it was a tough situation for any president to handle.

It wasn’t until the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests that the bottom started to drop out.

Two weeks after Floyd’s death I ran a focus group with seven women from swing states—all of whom voted for Trump but currently rated him as doing a “very bad” job.

Only one was leaning toward voting for him again. Three were definitely going to vote for Biden. The other three were still making up their minds. But even these undecideds were unequivocal in their distaste for Trump’s posture on race and his handling of the protests. They actively recoiled.

One of the Trump voters who had decided to vote for Biden said, “The stakes are too high now. It’s a matter of life and death.”

That’s a pretty a good distillation of why Trump has been shedding support from women over the last few months. The multiple crises laid bare the fact that Donald Trump isn’t the savvy businessman these women voted for. Instead, they see him as a divisive president who’s in over his head.

And they see that his inability to successfully navigate this environment has real-world consequences for actual people.

Average voters weren’t moved by Trump’s obstruction of justice in the Mueller investigation, or his quid-pro-quo with Ukraine, or his many personal scandals. But when people are unemployed, or dying, and the streets are on fire, they want a president who isn’t winging it.

They want someone who knows how the world works and can make the government perform the kind of functions that only it can do. Like managing a coordinated national response to a pandemic. Or using the bully pulpit to bring the nation together during a moment of crisis.

Donald Trump and his campaign think they can stop the bleeding with women by leaning into the culture wars and highlighting looters, rioters, and vandals pulling down statues. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of these voters. They don’t see Trump as someone who can protect them from the chaos—they think he’s the source of it.

Which isn’t to say that the race couldn’t turn around for one reason or another. I suppose that crazier things have happened in American politics. (Though I can’t think of many off the top of my head.)

But the reality is that no modern president has done more to alienate female voters. His whole life Trump has treated women with disdain. And they are now poised to return the favor.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.