Jae C. Hong/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.On the night of the second presidential debate, the biggest crowd in downtown Indianapolis was the one waiting to get into the Amy Schumer show. Asking the lines of Schumer fans outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse whether they thought women would back Donald Trump in the wake of the Billy Bush tape release produced replies including guffaws, obscenities and “only the ones who have had frontal lobotomies”.
“I’m amazed that the latest thing is a big deal compared to all the nasty things he’s said” said one young gig-goer.
Other women wouldn’t disclose: “Actually I’ve got lots to say but I’m not saying it”; “I’m going to plead the fifth”. Melissa, in her 40s from Indiana’s second-largest city Fort Wayne opined after some reflection, "I think he should keep his views on women to himself. I think it makes it tougher to support him, but I don't think it's a deal-breaker if you're against Hillary. It's just another thing on the scale”.
From a trailing position, Donald Trump has taken the Republicans to new depths of unpopularity among women, particularly college graduates. A poll on Tuesday showed just 28% of women intended to vote for him. The following day, Eric Trump earned ridicule by emailing out a map showing states the Republicans would win if only men voted.
Yet thus far during the campaign, the Republican candidate’s boorishness and revelations of his past behaviour appear to have dented his appeal only so much, leaving a hard core unlikely to be swayed. In the spring, he had a 70% unfavourability rating among women and one survey suggested a mere 34% of women planned to vote for him, while in a poll conducted just after the Billy Bush tape, the 13% of female Republicans who felt he should drop out was only one percentage point higher than the male and female figure combined. The impact of the latest set of sexual assault allegations against him is yet to be seen.
In the Midwest in the days immediately leading up to and following the debate, I talked to Republican women about female perceptions of Trump and their own reasons for backing or rejecting him.
At the Republicans' ‘Victory Centre’ on the edge of industrial Lima, Ohio, volunteer Mary, 64 declares "men should rule the world" – with their "tunnel vision" a virtue – but adds, "I don't want to hear men are superior to women, that's not true". Her colleague Nancy downplays the Billy Bush tape – "11 years ago, he was a Democrat!" "I've worked in corporate life," she says. "That [talk] goes on. Bill Clinton and Jack Kennedy actually did it in the White House". She feels optimistic voters will come out for Trump despite the polls. "This time people are more outraged. My Democratic girlfriends are voting Trump", she adds, with Obamacare and the impact of immigration on public services among the main issues for them.
I don't want to hear men are superior to women, that's not true.
In Mount Auburn, northern Kentucky, customer services representative Michelle Gunkel worries about the “catastrophic” health insurance premiums and deductibles she faces under Obamacare, and that a long-term health problem would bankrupt her. Her chief concern is jobs – her nieces and nephews can’t find a job to pay off their student loans, let alone earn a living wage. Trump’s tax plan would help the middle-class, she says – criticisms that it doesn’t add up economically should be set alongside the fact that the Affordable Care Act was pushed through with promises to sort out the details later. She thinks Trump’s wealth will guarantee his independence and that as for his limited policy experience, “he will seek out serious people, he has always had people to advise him”: two frequent claims by supporters, who make much of his political outsider status.
Several Republican women say the choice is poor and admit to being motivated chiefly by a dislike of Hillary Clinton, with her alleged enrichment through the Clinton Foundation and the email scandal high on a checklist of failings. Both candidates have "humungous flaws” says Erin Huff, who has run a barbershop business in Columbus, Ohio since she was 19. Trump "does say really dumb things. I don’t take [it] personally”. His family, "all decent people", show he can’t be a “complete slimeball”. Clinton, however, is self-serving, not a true public servant and "obviously I think she’s hiding something with the emails”. Diana Barrer, a 50-year-old PA from Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, says she “liked Trump on the Apprentice” and still likes him “even though he is a little annoying. Even if you don't like what he's going to say, you know what he's thinking". Clinton “didn't stand up for women because she didn't stand up for herself". She thinks Trump has been "very smart" over his tax arrangements.
Rachel Laing and Esther Barrett are friends who attend a non-denominational evangelical church in suburban Columbus. They are from conservative Christian backgrounds yet are supporting Hillary this time – Laing leads the Ohio chapter of the Republican Women for Hillary movement. Their conversion was prompted by revulsion at Trump’s ethics – "as a woman, as a mother, as an attorney, as a Christian, as a human person, he's just too offensive to me" Laing says (other members such as Christie Hurst in Indiana consider him equally “a monster” from a secular standpoint). Laing and Barrett read around the subject, initially conservative commentators, then non-partisan research pieces, and concluded the scandals around Trump's bribery of elected officials, bankruptcies and the Trump University scheme were worse than Hillary's, and that his budget and tax plans are nonsense, proof he is neither a Republican nor a conservative.
As a woman, as a mother, as an attorney, as a Christian, as a human person, he's just too offensive.
Both women believe that for "reflexive Republicans", Trump may be an uncomfortable choice, but it’s “more uncomfortable to think that maybe my party doesn't reflect my values any more". To jump from Trump to Clinton, persona non grata since 1992, is beyond the pale. So Barrett finds herself pressing those who call Clinton “evil” to substantiate it, not simply repeat the talking points of Benghazi and the email scandal. Trump meanwhile is granted a free pass, his past forgiven as long as he says he will reverse Roe v Wade. From the viewpoint of a week ago, just before the second debate, Laing’s feeling was that if more dire allegations emerged against him, the base will just say the claims have been fabricated.
A further category of Republican woman is represented by Barbara Molargik-Fitch, a Fort Wayne party rep, attorney and charity volunteer. The range of candidates in the primary excited her, she says – next to them, Trump seems rash, ill-informed and his plans unclear. The excuse of “locker room talk” she thinks insults men as well as women. She has respect for Hillary’s articulateness but cannot endorse someone with such a liberal platform. She’s watched the debates with her husband who shares her disillusion, except he finds them “humorous” whereas they mortify her. Will America be taken seriously, she wonders? The options before her include voting third party, writing in a candidate or sitting the election out – she’s hoping for a revelation by polling day.
Donald Trump's unpopularity with women will cost him any chances of the presidency, argues political scientist Justin Berry of Kalamazoo College, Michigan. He would have to compensate for minority voters’ aversion by capturing more than 50% of white women’s votes, and his failure to win over women in suburban Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia put battleground states beyond him. His aggression, interruptions and looming physicality in the debates have turned off women; there is a sexist as well as racist dog-whistle to the vision of "Make America Great Again", says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Yet Trump can still command the loyalty of a core group of women and men, voting regardless of gender on concerns about economic and national security that transcend even major reservations with his character, as Ohioan political scientist Jacqueline Sievert identifies. This group may be too small to win a general election, but is enough to overturn a political party establishment, and it is not going away if Trump loses. And there’s no easy strategy for coming to terms with it.