President Donald Trump has been warned by his political advisers in recent weeks that his perilously low standing with suburban female voters could be worsening amid the lingering coronavirus crisis, imperiling his chances for re-election.
Five sources on the Trump campaign or in the administration told The Daily Beast that they fear the global pandemic and resulting U.S. economic downturn are potentially feeding frustration with the president among this demographic, which the campaign’s own polling sees as crucial in 2020. Two of the sources said the issue of suburban women has been raised in direct conversations with Trump in the past four weeks.
“This is a voting bloc that we used to call ‘soccer moms,’ and it’s been an area of concern [for the Republican Party], as far as the demographics of voters go, since George W. Bush,” said Barry Bennett, a GOP operative and lobbyist who served as a senior Trump adviser during the 2016 campaign. “So I think it’s part of the re-make-up of what the electorate looks like, and it’s not entirely a Trump-specific problem. It’s a rejiggering of the electoral make-up, for sure. [Suburban women are] an easy target to get to and an easy target to message to, and [Trump 2020 and the GOP] should be doing a better job. But it’s not a five-alarm fire yet.”
After a brief uptick in his approval rating during the early stages of the federal government’s response to COVID-19, Trump has seen his political standing slip. He has been hit with wide-ranging criticism, including from various public health professionals, over his response to the coronavirus, with many admonishing his sluggish and at times shambolic response to a dire situation. In Republican circles, the mounting fear is that the economic downturn that has resulted from the public health response to the virus has further eroded Trump’s standing, especially among suburbanites.
“Trump owed his support in the suburbs to college-educated men who could look past the bombast and Twitter controversy in order to keep economic leadership in the hands of pro-business Republican leadership. As the economy shakes to the core, the risk of electing a big-spending, tax-hiking Democratic president takes a back seat,” said David Kochel, a prominent GOP operative in Iowa who is advising federal and statewide politicians there.
Trump’s efforts to reverse his fortunes have broken down into three main strategies: media ubiquity through daily press briefings; increasing blame directed at China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated; and routine talk of “reopening” the economy.
But those efforts have largely either failed to gain traction or backfired. Data compiled by the progressive firm Navigator polling showed a major erosion in support among Republican voters—and women in particular—for loosening stay-at-home directives. On April 16, 40 percent of GOP women said they worried that those restrictions would “go too long” and 41 percent worried that they’d “end too soon.” One week later—after Trump had embraced the idea of “liberat[ing]” states—those numbers stood at 32 percent and 53 percent.
Shortly after Trump tweeted his call for people to “LIBERATE” states where Democratic governors imposed aggressive public safety restrictions, several officials in the White House counseled him that coming down so hard on the side of protests could backfire politically, two administration sources say. A senior Trump administration official said that the president was “not ‘fomenting domestic rebellion', as the professional detractors have suggested, so much as seeing in some of these folks the forgotten men and women who are facing their May 1 bills with trepidation or desperation.”
But it has become increasingly evident that top Republicans see little upside in aligning with the protesters. Trump has criticized Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s plans to open up non-essential businesses in his state quickly. And one of the top GOP donor families in the country, Dick and Elizabeth Uihlein, publicly distanced themselves from protests happening in Wisconsin—a state in which they have spent tens of millions of dollars to elect Republican officials.
“While the Uihlein family supports efforts to reopen the economy as quickly and safely as possible, they are not involved with donations related to protests of Safer at Home / Shelter in Place orders,” a family spokesman said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
And so, increasingly, Team Trump is pinning their hopes on another tactic between now and Election Day: convincing a chunk of suburban moms and female voters that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is temperamentally unfit and too doddering to manage the crisis, and that voting for him would be too risky a choice in one of the country’s most uncertain hours.
But on this front, too, they have their work cut out for them.
A national Harvard/Harris survey of registered voters taken between April 14 and April 16 underscores the president’s problems with women, particularly those living in the regions between the GOP’s rural strongholds and historically Democratic urban cores. Fully 54 percent of suburban respondents told the pollsters that they disapproved of Trump's performance as president, and 39 percent reported that they strongly disapproved of his job in office. This figure closely aligned with the 56 percent of women generally who gave the president poor marks in the study, and the 40 percent who gave him an extremely negative grade. By contrast, 55 percent of men nationwide gave a thumbs-up to Trump’s execution of his duties.
Even the polling company run by John McLaughlin, Trump’s own pollster, found him underwater with women: 56 percent told McLaughlin & Associates that they disapproved of the chief executive, compared to 42 percent who took a friendly view, in data released on Wednesday. Additionally, recent internal numbers at a group working to re-elect Trump also showed his dismal standing among female suburbanites, according to a source with knowledge of the data.
Various Trump aides are hoping that the president can dig himself out of this hole by making up the difference and overperforming with other demographic groups, including pro-Trump blue-collar and rural voters in battleground states. The Trump campaign has also tried to counteract these trends in part by continuing to organize and coordinate various “Women for Trump” events, calls, and online gatherings during the pandemic, including ones tailored especially for the “MAGA Mamas.”
Still, there are signs that this president may not grasp the severity of his deficit with suburban women as strongly as some of his senior advisers do.
In a recent White House meeting, Trump was briefed on his latest poll numbers, including those on suburban women voters in a Fox News survey from late March, which showed 60 percent of suburban women disliked how Trump has acted as president. According to a source with knowledge of the discussion, Trump responded by quipping that Fox pollsters were always out to “get” him, and largely dismissed the data.