St. PAUL, Minn. — Lara Trump thinks that her father-in-law, President Trump, could use some extra support at this particular stage of his presidency. So along with Karen Pence, the second lady, Ms. Trump traveled to this (slimly) blue state with a message for women who support him: Don’t be afraid to speak up — and by all means, please speak up.
“We know it’s not easy sometimes to be a Trump supporter,” she said in praise of the hundreds of women, most of them white, who attended her Women for Trump event this month. “We appreciate you so much. You stand up for what you believe in.”
Onstage next to her, Mrs. Pence, an evangelical Christian whose initial distaste for Mr. Trump’s unchaste behavior has been widely reported, gave rare public testimony about how much she thinks Mr. Trump respects women.
“I just want to encourage you not to be afraid,” Mrs. Pence told the group gathered in a conference room in St. Paul’s historic train station. “This time, we have a record, so it’s like, you can’t tell me stuff on the fake news.”
The visit was one of several that high-profile Trump campaign operatives have made in recent weeks to reach out to women — especially those who may have turned away from the president during the 2018 midterm elections and who may be increasingly squeamish as impeachment proceedings accelerate in Washington.
Their other goal is to keep existing supporters motivated and encourage them to spread the campaign’s message of a healthy economy, a reverence for the military and an aggressive approach to securing the border with Mexico.
“You are the keys to winning this election,” Kayleigh McEnany, the campaign’s national press secretary, told the crowd.
But the Trump campaign is facing an uphill battle. A majority of women — including over 90 percent of black women and 60 percent of Hispanic women — favored Mr. Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton in 2016. And though the 53 percent of white women who voted for Mr. Trump were a factor in his election, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed plummeting support for him in that demographic.
And now in Minnesota, a state that Mr. Trump narrowly lost but campaign officials think he could win in 2020, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll released last week shot voters split on impeachment, and women overwhelmingly more likely to say that Mr. Trump has abused his power.
As the impeachment inquiry proceeds, the gender gap may only widen, both in Minnesota and nationally.
“He had a big gender problem already,” said Celinda Lake, the president of Lake Research Partners and a longtime pollster and political strategist for Democrats. “The way he responds is one of the things that women don’t like. This really aggressive bullying-type tone is part of what women don’t like about him.”
But Ms. Trump dismissed the recent polling on impeachment and said campaign officials were hoping to attract women who might be motivated by the president’s insistence that he was a victim of a partisan effort.
“Things like this impeachment inquiry only motivate people,” Ms. Trump said, “certainly people that like what they’ve seen from this president.”
Ms. Trump is the best known of the quartet of high-profile Trump campaign stars looking to build support among women. The others are Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News personality who is dating Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son; Katrina Pierson, a campaign-era aide who joined Mr. Trump after having worked on Senator Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign; and Ms. McEnany, the campaign’s Harvard-educated national press secretary, who is one of the campaign’s most visible fixtures.
“We don’t feel we need to show a different president,” Ms. McEnany said. “The authenticity that he shows is enough, and we think it’s enough to win re-election.”
But the campaign’s focus on selling Mr. Trump’s record does not impress Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who works with the “super PAC” Priorities USA, who argues that Mr. Trump’s record — particularly on issues like health care — will cut against him.
“Polls clearly and consistently show that Trump is in terrible shape with women, particularly with college-educated women and younger women, but not only with them,” Mr. Garin said, suggesting that the campaign’s statements to the contrary are simply wishful thinking. “While Trump brags on how well women are doing in the economy today, polls show that women voters are the least likely to feel that they have benefited from Trump’s economic policies.”
The working premise of the Trump campaign’s effort with women is that there is a hidden Trump voter — loosely defined as a woman who is unregistered, unpersuaded or less than vocal about her support for the president who can be identified and motivated to vote. If the campaign can reach enough of them, the thinking goes, the pollsters can be proved wrong.
Democratic pollsters concede that woman may exist.
“A lot of us are trying to correct for it,” Ms. Lake said, referring to voter surveys that Democrats are conducting. She said the woman the Trump campaign is likeliest to appeal to is white, without a college degree, married and likely to vote the way her husband does on Election Day.
She is also likely to hang up on pollsters, Ms. Lake said.
Jamie Starkweather, a 42-year-old from Battle Creek, Mich., is the type of woman campaign officials want to reach. Ms. Starkweather grew up a Democrat and voted for Mrs. Clinton in 2016, then married a conservative and stopped working shortly after the election. Her husband’s trucking business, she said, is doing well under this economy.
Ms. Starkweather, who holds an associate degree, said she began to dislike what she saw as an intense focus on racial issues on social media, which she blames on liberals. Ms. Starkweather pointed to Mr. Trump’s support among people like Candace Owens, who has rallied black supporters of the president, as evidence that he is not racist.
“If he’s so racist, and if he’s such a bad man,” Ms. Starkweather added, “then why are these people supporting him?”
To Ms. Starkweather and other Trump supporters, the accusations about Mr. Trump’s abusive or misogynistic behavior toward women — including comments on the leaked “Access Hollywood” audio taped in which Mr. Trump bragged about grabbing women by the genitals — are outdated indiscretions committed long before he entered politics.
“He was a little bit of a playboy,” Ms. Starkweather said. “Everybody knows that.”
Ms. Pierson, one of the few African-Americans on the Trump campaign, acknowledged the difficulty of finding such voters at a campaign event in the Detroit suburbs.
“I applaud you all for having the courage to stand up for what you believe in,” she told the group of women at the meeting.
And within the campaign, there is a renewed urgency to find more women like Ms. Starkweather.
In Madison, Wis., last month, Ms. Guilfoyle visited with a dozen female volunteers she affectionately deputized as her “soldiers for truth,” sharing stories of making phone calls and even winning a pig-kissing contest in support of the president.
“You have to do whatever it takes,” Ms. Guilfoyle told the volunteers, to get people to vote.
“Give people a ride,” she told them. “Do whatever it takes. Get them there.”
This sustained outreach is a marked contrast to the improvisational operation of 2016, run by a handful of trusted aides and family members.
Back then, there were few full-time campaign staff members and fewer women, and Corey Lewandowski, the original campaign manager, periodically walked around the campaign headquarters on the fifth floor of Trump Tower with a baseball bat.
Kellyanne Conway, now the White House counselor, would later take over that role, and become the first woman to run a winning Republican campaign. And the current campaign manager, Brad Parscale, makes a point of noting that more than half the 2020 team’s employees are women.
Ms. Conway, who repeatedly pressed the idea of a hidden voter with reporters in 2016, said in an interview that this voter was still out there. This voter, she said, is “tired of arguing with folks in their circle of life who are very opinionated and strong willed and loud” — and opposed to Mr. Trump.
At a rally in New Hampshire in August, Ms. McEnany spoke to supporters like Carly Downs, 33, who said she was initially unsure of whom to vote for in 2016 and in an interview boiled down her split-second voting decision by using an expletive to describe Mrs. Clinton.
“We all know who he was prior to becoming the candidate,” Ms. Downs said about Mr. Trump.
The campaign says its fund-raising data is evidence that hidden voters exist: Half of all donations in the first quarter came from women, compared with about 25 percent in 2016, according to a campaign official.
“He may be raising buckets of money,” Ms. Lake, the pollster, observed, “but he’s going to need it to win women back.”
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