Conventional wisdom holds that women’s opposition to Donald Trump will sink him this November, and there is plenty of reason to believe that. A CNN poll found some 73% of all women disapprove of him, the highest gender opposition ever seen for a major candidate.
Echoing the polls, opinion writers are almost universally writing off Trump’s chances among women. He continues to alienate them, they say. What appeal he has among women is limited primarily to those who are ideologically conservative. In his fits of misogyny, freshly documented and chronicled over many years, he has hurled so many insults at women that they won’t forgive or forget.
That’s the conventional wisdom. So, game over?
Not so fast. The latest numbers indicate that Trump’s approval among women has been climbing modestly since March, while his disapproval ratings are declining. And most of the commentary about Trump’s relationship with women is a product of looking at him and at Hillary Clinton through a gender lens only. If the sole question is which of them is more pro-women, of course she wins. But if one replaces the gender lens with an economic lens, the landscape of women voters takes on a completely different focus.
To be sure, most women do — and should — care about issues of gender equality. The country needs a president who will close the gaps in pay, policy and culture. Bu a recent CNN poll shows that for most women, this election is about more than gender. Think back to the mantra of the first Clinton election in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Once again, this election will likely hinge on this number one issue for voters of both genders.
The same CNN poll reveals that at the moment, women believe Clinton is more capable than Trump on the economy. If she continues to hold that lead, Clinton is almost guaranteed victory in November — but if Trump can stop taking pot shots at women and have the self-discipline to zero in on the economy and expanding economic opportunity for women, he has a golden opportunity to make far greater inroads into the women’s vote than he has now. He has abundant time and chances to change the conversation over the next six months.
Trump would be smart to target women on economic issues — not only because many of them bristle at his boorishness, but also because a majority of women voters think economic conditions right now are bad under President Obama’s leadership (compared to a minority of men). As long as Hillary Clinton pledges to continue Obama’s agenda, Trump has an opening to reinforce this negative assessment among women of Obama and the economy — and to tie Clinton to the President’s kite in the process.
That shouldn’t be hard to accomplish in the coming months, especially since there is little reason to think the economy will be robust by fall. The latest growth numbers and job numbers were miserable. China’s growth rate has slowed amid growing concern that its excessive debt could explode into an international crisis.
Supporters in both the Trump and Bernie Sanders’ camps continue to vent their economic frustration and anger. Consider, too, that since the Great Recession, nearly two-hirds of minimum wage earners are women and the majority do not have a spouse’s income on which to depend. Almost 56% of poor people today are women or girls, and close to 40% of single-mother households live in poverty.
Economic issues could also provide Trump with ways to reinforce perceptions that Clinton is untrustworthy. The Hillary Clinton who served in the Senate was a staunch friend of the business community; the Hillary Clinton now on the campaign trail is in the Sanders-Elizabeth Warren camp. Trump will surely ask: which Hillary will show up to run the economy from the White House?
To be fair, Hillary Clinton also has plenty of ammunition to bring to economic debates with Trump. She has developed a much more comprehensive and credible economic plan than he has (check out her website). Taking a page out of Sanders’ playbook, she has also embraced a $15 federal minimum wage. But she’ll have to work hard to counter the belief that for all his weaknesses, Trump still has the strength to turn the country around.
It won’t be easy for Trump to move the public debate away from how he treats women. And even if he does shift the debate, Clinton will be a formidable opponent. But if he can reframe the campaign, he has a much better chance than experts seem to think of persuading women to give him a second look.
Don’t forget what Trump has already done. Since June 2015, Trump has done what many thought impossible: persuade significant numbers of Republican women to support him. Since August 2015, his approval rating among them has risen from 20% to 59%. Hillary Clinton clearly maintains a strong upper hand among all women voters, but if Trump is as smart as he says he is, he still has a chance to close the gender gap.
Facing facts, conventional wisdom has been wrong repeatedly in this race, and it could be again about women voters. I am no Trump fan, but I don’t think we should write him off. More importantly, wouldn’t it be refreshing if much of our national debate over the next six months addressed the best ways to expand economic and social opportunities for women?