Donald Trump’s presidential campaign continues to dominate headlines and airtime thanks in part to his controversial comments about women, from Megyn Kelly to Rosie O’Donnell. But that doesn’t change one fact: Almost no one actually believes Donald Trump has a chance at winning the nomination or the presidency.
With new polls showing Hillary Clinton’s support slipping with female voters, there is a clear opening for the GOP. The question is which Republican candidate has the best shot at seizing the opportunity—despite the gender train-wreck that Trump’s candidacy has been so far?
While it has been treated as somewhat of a given that Hillary Clinton would easily win female voters, history has proven the reality to be much more complicated. For starters, Clinton has a complicated relationship with female voters. Most female candidates do.
Going back to her husband’s 1992 campaign when she made her infamous “cookies” crack, which was perceived as a slight to stay-at-home mothers, women have tended to be divided about Clinton. She lost the women’s vote in early primary states Iowa and South Carolina to Barack Obama. A potential challenge for a Clinton’s current campaign is that a January poll found that while 69 percent of Democratic women said it is important to see a female president in their lifetime, only 20 percent of Republican women said the same.
“Being a woman does not give you the right to be the next president,” said Republican strategist Susan Del Percio in a phone interview. “Whether you’re Carly Fiorina or Hillary Clinton. It’s going to be your campaign that matters.”
And at the moment, Clinton’s campaign is being weighed down by an email server scandal, which seems to be affecting her poll numbers. A new Wall Street Journal poll has found that her favorability with white female voters declined by 10 percent in one month. Del Percio and another Republican strategist, Cheri Jacobus, both predicted that Clinton’s slip could provide an opening for a candidate like Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Though a late entrant to the race, and therefore not enjoying the coverage that some other candidates are, Kasich appears to be one of the GOP’s best hopes for winning female voters—across party and racial lines —in a general election. As governor of Ohio, one of the most important presidential battleground states in the nation, his previous campaigns should be considered a decent indicator of his appeal to different types of American voters—and exit polls for his 2014 re-election indicate he appeals to female voters in a major way. He won 60 percent of female voters, including 71 percent of white female voters.
Also likely to help his case was his recent debate performance. While other candidates generated more airtime and attention, Kasich turned in a solid performance that displayed compassion on issues such as poverty and even same-sex marriage, and most important, avoided any controversial statements likely to be used in an attack ad later. Not all of the other candidates can say the same.
While Trump has been most widely criticized for alienating women with his debate performance, Clinton has made clear she believes he’s not the only one. She took aim at Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who had what many considered a stellar performance in the debate. Clinton said: “When one of their major candidates, a much younger man, the senator from Florida, says there should be no exceptions for rape and incest, that is as offensive and as troubling a comment as you can hear from a major candidate running for the presidency.”
Clinton is right in theory. Polls have consistently shown that a large majority of Americans (more than 70 percent), including women, support access to legal and safe abortion in cases of rape or incest.
What is less clear is how many women actually vote on this issue. Just because someone believes abortion should not be illegal does not mean it will ultimately determine her final vote. Furthermore, unlike the 2012 election in which birth control coverage was the leading reproductive rights debate, the controversy surrounding the recent Planned Parenthood videos could impact casual pro-choicers. In other words, if someone is technically pro-choice, but considers it a second- or third-tier issue, then the Planned Parenthood videos combined with a likable and non-extreme pro-life candidate could shake up the election.
Del Percio, the Republican strategist, said that at the end of the day it is highly unlikely reproductive rights will define this election. She did say, however, that candidates perceived as too extreme may alienate women and named Texas senator Ted Cruz as likely too conservative to gain traction with women nationwide.
Cruz is not the only one who may face an uphill climb. During the debate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker refused to articulate an exception to his opposition to abortion when a mother’s life is at stake. Even women who do not define themselves as reproductive rights voters will likely find it tough to vote for someone who believes he has the right to decide if they should live or die when faced with a challenging or dangerous pregnancy. Mike Huckabee talked about sidestepping the Supreme Court’s authority on the issue, which also may raise flags among voters. Governor Kasich, in contrast, is on the record as pro-life but also as believing in exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.
Former governor Jeb Bush seems to be a bit more of a wild card. He tied his Democratic opponent in total female voters during his 1998 election, but won white female voters by a sizable margin, 56 to 43 percent. He has been among the most aggressive critics of Trump’s rhetoric on women, being the first GOP candidate to call on Trump to apologize, and going further by expressing concern Trump will hurt the party with women. But it is unclear how much his clumsy comment that “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” will haunt him.
If Bush, a policy-heavy, business-minded, corporate-friendly, establishment candidate stumbles, then that leaves an opening for another business-minded, corporate-friendly, establishment candidate, Carly Fiorina. Thanks to her winning performance in the pre-debate debate, voters and media are taking another look at the only female GOP presidential candidate.
Republican strategist Jacobus emphasized that Fiorina is on an upswing because of her performance in recent weeks, “not because of her gender.” But with her newfound success comes newfound scrutiny. The former executive is facing criticism from some women for her opposition to a federal mandate for paid maternity leave. Fiorina has no biological children of her own.
There hasn’t been the same outcry regarding male candidates’ maternity- or paternity-leave positions. Which just goes to show that whether your name is Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina, often times women voters can be the toughest crowd when you’re a woman running for office.
The other takeaway may be this: With every step closer toward women’s equality, defining what constitutes “women’s issues” that matter to all women will get harder and harder and that means figuring out how to win the so-called “women’s vote” will keep getting harder for both parties.