“The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” Trump said Wednesday on Twitter. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”
It’s an existential issue for Trump’s political future. In 2016, Trump won a critical demographic — white women without a college degree — by 27 percentage points. But as of May, Biden had closed that gap to Trump to only 6 points, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey. More broadly in 2016, Trump won suburban voters, 49 percent to 45 percent, but has since lost that edge, according to polling data.
Yet Trump’s bellicose overtures to women are leading even some Republicans pollsters to question his gambit, particularly his hellish predictions of rampant crime coming to the suburbs and forced low-income housing driving down suburban property values. They noted that the suburban women who abandoned Trump’s Republican Party in 2018 — many of whom had college degrees, earned higher incomes than average and had previously voted Republican — were unlikely to be won back with such racially divisive rhetoric that also trafficked in outmoded gender norms.
“The campaign thinks it’s fear and they think they can scare people back into the fold, but the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden and it’s not Bernie Sanders,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who has been critical of Trump. “There’s very little they can do to say now to say they managed Covid successfully and the economy is in good shape, because neither of those things are true. That leaves them with fear of Biden.”
Trump’s explicit appeals to suburban voters started in earnest during a late June rally in Phoenix, when he vowed “disunity and discord” would come to “every suburb” if Biden was elected. In the following weeks, Trump’s suburban overtures became more pronounced, barbed and specific.
A recent ad from the Trump campaign features a woman of color and real-life Trump voter sitting holding cue cards to describe Biden as “weak,” a man who “embraced the policies of the far left.”
On Wednesday night, Trump warned at a press briefing that the Democrats were “going to, in my opinion, destroy suburbia.”
“You want something where people aspire to be there,” he added.
It’s part of a broader Trump team push to retain women voters that previously was primarily an economic pitch — before the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment rates for women had fallen to historic lows, a majority of new jobs were going to women and there were more women than men in the workforce for only the second time in U.S. history.
“Whether you like his tweets or not or his tone or not his policies have been beneficial for women,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign senior adviser.
Those gains look different in a post-pandemic world, however, with unemployment soaring, businesses closing and economists predicting a long road back to pre-pandemic figures.
Biden also changed the dynamic on Tuesday when he picked Harris. Democrats hope Harris will help energize moderate voters and women — especially suburban women — in November. Trump demonized Harris on Wednesday as “nasty” and “angry.”
“She left angry, she left mad, there was nobody more insulting to Biden than she was,” Trump said of Harris’s failed presidential campaign. “She said horrible things about him.”
Over the past few decades, both parties have aggressively courted suburban voters. The voting bloc has an above-average education and is evenly divided politically. In the 2016 election, Trump won suburban voters by roughly 5 percentage points.
Those areas don’t appear to be coming back to Trump. And suburban women, in particular, haven’t been swayed by the president’s appeals of the past two months. In fact, recent polling from POLITICO and Morning Consult shows declining support among suburban women, dropping from 37 to 34 percent in the two latest polls.
Yet there’s another critical demographic that appears more evenly split than suburban women: non-college educated women over 50.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster with ties to the Biden campaign, describes this demographic as “guardian women” and has done polling on the group. The subset of voters split their votes for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012, and then Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016. Most recently, however, they lean towards Biden.
Lake said security is the top value for these potential voters, and noted many are caring for aging parents or kids.
Trump’s pandemic messaging has directly hit on all these issues.
A recent Trump campaign ad warns that Biden’s desire to defund the police — a policy Biden does not support — will leave 911 calls unanswered. And the president touts images of urban unrest amid mostly peaceful racial injustice protests as heralding chaos in the suburbs. Similarly, Trump continues to insist schools fully reopen in the fall, arguing it’s what parents and women want.
“The president has and continues to prioritize education and school choice, ensuring every child can receive a quality education no matter their zip code, and his administration is actively working to find a way to safely reopen our schools, getting kids in the classrooms and parents back to work,” said Lara Trump, an adviser to the Trump campaign who has been headlining the “Women for Trump” bus tour stops. “Women across the nation can trust in President Trump to put them and their families first.”
Yet Lake argued that polling shows these more evenly split “guardian women” are put off by Trump’s pandemic rhetoric.
“They see their jobs as protecting their family and communities, and they think Trump’s erratic style of leadership, no plan, not listening to experts has actually made that job more difficult and they’re upset,” she said.
For instance, while mothers want to see children return to school, educators and many medical experts have warned that the current surge in coronavirus cases makes classrooms too dangerous. That’s troubling to women, said Sarah Longwell, founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, a coalition of Republicans, former Republicans and conservatives who are opposing Trump. Longwell has conducted focus groups with female swing voters over the last two years.
“The administration’s instinct is that people want their kids back in school, they absolutely do,” she said. “These women want to know the plan to keep them safe. What are we doing? That’s the thing people find frustrating, especially the women who are bearing a disproportionate burden with kids and childcare.”
Essentially, Longwell noted, Trump’s version of security isn’t resonating with this group.
“These women give him a lot of latitude,” she said. “Act presidential, have a plan, and having a light at the end of the tunnel would help, too. That’s what people want. They want it to be over.”