It’s the question that has been plaguing political analysts, pundits and — most importantly — the Republican establishment for months now: how can a presidential candidate who regularly alienates more than half of the electorate, being historically unpopular with female voters, ever win a general election? Just this week, an NBC/WSJ poll showed that about half (47 percent) of Republican female primary voters said they could not never see themselves voting for Donald Trump. Compare that to his Republican rivals, who are trailing him in the election: 32 percent of female Republican voters could not imagine voting for Ted Cruz, while only 27 percent said they’d never vote John Kasich. That’s only Republicans: when you look at average polls for the general electorate, nearly 70 percent of women felt unfavorably towards the brash billionaire.
But if there’s one person who doesn’t seem to be losing a minute of sleep over how his words and behavior might be pushing away women voters, it is Mister Trump himself. During Tuesday’s CNN Town Hall, Anderson Cooper called him out on last week’s Twitter spat with Ted Cruz, as he went after his main opponent’s wife, Heidi Cruz, by retweeting an unflattering photo of her. Trump played dumb at first, saying: “I thought it was a nice picture of Heidi. I thought it was fine,” but when pressed on the question, resorted to: “Excuse me, I didn’t start it.” Cooper voiced what millions of viewers were probably thinking, telling the man who wants to be America’s next president: “Sir, with all due respect, that’s the argument of a 5 year old.”
This wasn’t even the most concerning part of the night, however — as Donald Trump stood firmly by his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, saying he would not fire him, despite the fact that he had been charged on Tuesday with battery of Breitbart-reporter Michelle Fields. The Republican frontrunner questioned her version of the facts (despite there being CCTV footage to back her up), mocked her bruises, and told Anderson Cooper that the 28-year old journalist is “not a baby.” He went as far as suggesting that maybe he should be the one pressing charges, as Fields tried to “grab” him, while he was leaving the press conference. Driving the exchange to peak absurdity, he argued that the pen she had been brandishing could easily have been a dangerous weapon, telling Cooper: “She had a pen in her hand, which Secret Service is not liking because they don’t know what it is, whether it’s a little bomb.”
Trump decided to push his boundaries just one step further on Wednesday, taking the most extreme position on abortion of any presidential candidate. When MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked him if there should be any punishment for women if abortions were made illegal, as he is proposing, Trump responded: “There has to be some form of punishment.” Refusing to elaborate on what such a punishment would actually be, he said the specific law would “have to be determined,” and would depend on the general election in 2016 and the outcome of the Supreme Court battle. His outlandish answer drew swift criticism from Hillary Clinton, who tweeted: “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse. Horrific and telling,” as well as from Bernie Sanders who called his position “shameful.” Even his very pro-life opponent Ted Cruz, who has positioned himself as tough on abortion throughout the presidential race, was quick to condemn Trump, with his rapid response director pointing out that the traditional view of the pro-life movement would be to punish those carrying out illegal abortions, not the women themselves.
Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling. -H https://t.co/Qi8TutsOw9
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) March 30, 2016
Trump later flipped his entire position, saying he meant that people who administer abortions should be punished, not the women who receive them. In a statement, he said: “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.:
Some of the people surrounding Trump seem to be getting tired of his antics as well: one of his top campaign strategists, the communications director Stephanie Cegielski, announced in a cutting open letter on XOJane that she is defecting, citing Trump’s tweet that “he alone can solve” the problems in Pakistan after the devastating terrorist attack in Lahore on Easter Sunday, as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Trump, she says, never imagined he would come this far and probably doesn’t even want to. “The man does not know policy, nor does he have the humility to admit what he does not know — the most frightening position of all,” she wrote, arguing that the Donald Trump who is running for president is not an “authentic” anti-establishment politician, but more like a fictional soap-opera character. “He even says so himself. His misogyny? That’s the character,” she writes, referring to the fact that Trump said his comments about women were made by his reality TV personality. “His presidential candidacy? That’s a character, too.”
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, another former Trump confidante offered up a somewhat different perspective on her former boss’ misogyny. Barbara Res, who worked for the Trump Organization from 1980 to 1991 and became the company’s executive vice president, is often held up by Trump as a shining example of how he’s long been a champion of women. Res recalls Trump telling her he thought she was “a killer” when she was first hired, and she recalls him telling her: “Men are better than women, but a good woman is better than ten good men,” which according to the former businesswoman shows his rightful but “maybe sexist” belief that “women have to prove themselves and men don’t, so women have to work harder.” While she insists Trump never treated her any differently than he treated male employees, she did reveal that he once refused to have lunch meeting with a colleague because he thought she was “very, very ugly” and would often comment on her and other people’s weight — both men and women. At a time when he was having financial problems, she recalls, he would blame it on the fact that he wasn’t paying attention to his businesses “because so many women were after him” and he couldn’t resist.
And those are just the news stories of this past week. So who are those women that still choose to support Trump? On Monday, CNN’s Martin Savage sat down with five female Trump supporters to get to the bottom of that very question. Their answers all harkened back to the broader appeal of their “outsider” candidate, summed up by one supporter as “what you see is what you get”: he has a strong personality, says what he thinks, and is not politically correct. One of the women admitted she might have “cringed” at some of his degrading remarks, it doesn’t bother her: “That’s his personality. He just…lets it roll.”, while another one says she can’t be upset at him because “he insults the men as well.”
But while Trump still seems to be bulletproof for a certain segment of female Republican voters, his fraught relationship with women could still cost him very dearly in a general election. GOP strategist Katie Packer, who described Trump as the “walking, talking stereotype of a sexist misogynistic pig”, told the Washington Post: “It’s not just about so-called ‘women’s issues. It’s about how he values women and about how he’s willing to make women feel to benefit himself.” Packer, who leads the Our Principles PAC, an anti-Trump super PAC, said she was afraid that in a potential general election match-up against Hillary Clinton, independent and “soft Republican” female voters would flock to Clinton because “they see him as someone who’s repulsive.” The polls seem to agree with her: in that latest NBC/WSJ poll, up, just 31 percent of women said they would chose Trump, while 58 percent would pick Clinton, if they were to face off in a general election. So, as Nate Silver from statistical analysis blog FiveThirtyEight puts it: “apart from the fact that Trump’s misogyny is really gross, it’s also really dumb as an electoral strategy.” Women vote more than men: in the last few presidential elections women have cast between 4 and 7 million more votes than men, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. So while not even the grossest remarks or most disgusting behavior by his supporters or staff might seem to halt the rise of Trump at this point, if only enough women turn out to vote in November — that should just do the trick.