GOP vowed to do better with women. What happened?
WASHINGTON — The Republican Party commissioned an autopsy on the 2012 presidential election, trying to figure out why Mitt Romney lost. One of the verdicts, already glaringly obvious to many: The party needed to make itself more attractive to women.
The 2016 race isn’t even over, and fed-up conservative women, saying the party failed to heed the lesson, are angrily conducting a vivisection of the campaign of Donald Trump and, pointedly, the party leaders who refused to disown him.
“I’m over it; I’m done. I’m tired of defending these people. You may not be a sexist, but you are OK with people who are,” said Brittany Pounders, a conservative writer and activist in Texas.
“I’m so mad at the Republican Party. I’m so mad,” said Kelleigh Murphy, a former Republican New Hampshire state representative, who recently switched her party registration to Independent to formalize her divorce from the GOP.
Trump’s candidacy is doing more than turning women away from the top of the ticket. He is alienating scores of them from the GOP more broadly, including some of the party’s most dedicated foot soldiers. It’s a dynamic that some, but not all, Republicans fear will inflict lasting damage on the party’s ability to attract female voters, a key constituency they already struggled with before the improbable rise of Trump.
Trump’s woman problem has become the Republican Party’s woman problem, and it could hurt the GOP in national and state elections beyond 2016, analysts as well as some Republicans say.
“What Trump is doing to the party for future generations is definitely potentially damaging,” said Melissa Deckman, a political scientist at Washington College in Maryland whose book on women in the Tea Party was published in May.
In interviews with the Globe as well as a flurry of social media screeds, essays, and blog posts, once-proud Republican women say not only are they disgusted at Trump’s words about and behavior toward women, among other things, but that they have grown equally angry with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and other elected Republicans who have not fully repudiated the Republican nominee — especially after Trump’s sexually predatory comments on the “Access Hollywood” hot mic in 2005.
It is nearly impossible to win an American presidential election without the strong support of women. Women made up more than half of all voters in 2012, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney lost women by 12 percentage points to President Obama. The Republican National Committee’s detailed retrospective on his loss — dubbed the “autopsy” but officially called the “Growth and Opportunity Project’’ — emphasized the need for the party to listen more closely to women within its ranks and to take steps to make the party more attractive to women who are not already core believers.
Republicans vowed to learn from their mistakes. Here is the opening line of the report: “The definition of insanity, according to the over-used proverb attributed to Einstein, is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ ”
By that definition, the party’s nomination of Trump, whose misogynistic comments have captured headlines throughout the primary campaign, has proved an act of madness, many in the party now believe.
Today, Hillary Clinton is up 20 points among women over Trump, according to an Oct. 16 WSJ/NBC poll, a gender advantage that, if it holds, puts the Democratic nominee on pace to win the women’s vote by one of the largest margins in recent political history.
Trump has experienced a notable drop in support, particularly, among suburban women and college-educated white women, subsets with whom the Republican Party has, historically, done better than with women overall, analysts say.
In the aftermath of Trump’s vulgar remarks on tape, a Fox News poll published Oct. 14 showed Trump dropped 10 points with suburban women, losing them 29 percent to 53 percent for Clinton among likely voters in a four-way matchup. He was down seven points among college-educated white women, getting just 38 percent to Clinton’s 48 percent. Among GOP women overall, Trump’s support dropped six points, the Fox poll showed.
The numbers foretell an ominous trend for the Republican Party, analysts say. While Obama won among women overall in 2012, that lead over Romney came from women of color, particularly black women, said Nadia Brown, a political scientist at Purdue University. Romney won 52 percent of college-educated white women to Obama’s 46 percent, according to exit polls.
“The swing vote for [Republicans] is women, and particularly it’s white women,” Brown said.
The 2016 election’s impact on the ability of the GOP to win back women who’ve traditionally voted Republican but aren’t active party members is what most concerns Katie Packer, a veteran GOP operative who led a well-financed effort to block Trump from the nomination.
“That’s why I worked so hard in the primary to fight Trump: because I knew there would be lasting damage,” said Packer, a cofounder of Burning Glass Consulting, a firm explicitly created to help the GOP overhaul its messaging to women and which has engaged in deep research and polling on the issue throughout this election cycle. “We can’t win national elections with a 12-point gender gap,” she said, referring to 2012. “We’re going to continue to lose in landslides if it’s 20 points.”
That doesn’t mean the GOP can’t ever get out of the hole. “Tylenol killed people, and today it is the number-one pain reliever in America,” Packer said. “So it’s possible to rebrand, but there’s some tough decisions to be made and a tough road ahead to get there.”
The Republican National Committee, which has said Trump’s remarks in the “Access Hollywood” tape were inappropriate but has remained committed to the nominee, did not respond directly to a request for comment.
“Have you asked the [Democratic National Committee] about Dems who are concerned about Hillary’s handling of classified info?’’ RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said in an e-mailed answer to Globe questions.
Trump himself, in a campaign appearance Saturday in Pennsylvania, promised legal action against the 10 women who have publicly described sexually aggressive behavior by him, including unwanted kissing, groping, and fondling.
‘‘Every one of these liars will be sued once the election is over,’’ Trump said, adding, ‘‘I look so forward to doing that.’’
Constance Morella, who served Maryland as a Republican in the House from 1987 to 2007, shares the fears of lasting damage to the party brand among women.
“This is a trend that had been appearing, and I think it’s been exacerbated with Trump and his comments and his attitude . . . and his actions he’s been accused of,” said Morella, who endorsed Clinton in August.
The reaction by Florida Senator Marco Rubio to Trump’s “Access Hollywood’’ taped comments pushed Marybeth Glenn, a conservative blogger in Wisconsin, home state of Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, over the edge.
Rubio, whom Glenn supported in the primary, criticized Trump’s comments but did not revoke his promise to vote for the New York real estate developer. She flipped open her laptop and fired off a 17-tweet diatribe denouncing Republican Party leaders for being “cowards.” It went viral.
“It feels like betrayal or abandonment,” Glenn said in an interview, recalling her volunteer work for Republican candidates at the state and national level. “The fact is that a lot of these men, we worked very hard to get [them] to where they are. They’ve basically turned their back on us.”
Or as she put it in her tweet storm: “If you can’t stand up for women & unendorse this piece of human garbage, you deserve every charge of sexism thrown at you. So I’m done. I’m sooo done.”
Murphy, the former New Hampshire state representative, said she is less likely, going forward, to back Republican candidates “because I don’t think that they have women’s interests at heart.”
That goes for New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, locked in a close race for reelection, said Murphy. Ayotte took a squishy position for much of the general election, saying she was not endorsing Trump but would vote for him. Ayotte dropped that support of Trump after the “Access Hollywood” recording came out, but it was too little, too late for Murphy.
“Kelly Ayotte should have taken a stand, and she didn’t, and she lost my vote as a result.”
Some party faithful don’t believe Trump is damaging the way women view the GOP.
“I don’t think we’re alienating lots of Republican women. I think many look at it the same way I do,” said Juliana Bergeron, the Republican committeewoman from New Hampshire. That being: Trump should not speak about women that way, but he apologized. There are more important issues, she stressed, like appointing conservatives to the Supreme Court.
Diana Orrock, a Republican committeewoman from Nevada, said neither she nor any of the women in her family were the least bit offended by Trump’s “goofy” comments on that recording. “We understand the context of that conversation from 11 years ago for exactly what it was, two guys talking, trying to outdo each other as to who caught the bigger fish,” she said, laughing. “And to think men don’t talk that way about women and women don’t talk that way about men, I tell you what, you’re living in a very protected world of unreality.”
To those Republican women who are offended by Trump, she warned that “there are far greater issues we need to be focusing on at this point in time,” including the Supreme Court, the economy, and the unchecked flood of illegal immigrants pouring over the border.
Packer said it will be important once the election is over for Republican leaders to fully renounce Trump’s words and actions, not just about women, but also about minorities, people of different faiths, and people with disabilities.
And the party’s elected leaders need to show they really get why women are so offended by Trump’s comments and by the allegations of sexual assault, she said.
Packer said that she and almost every professional woman she’s spoken to in recent weeks has a personal story of sexual harassment, unwanted touching, or worse. And like the Trump accusers, very few had ever told anyone for various reasons — the man was more powerful, they didn’t want the incident to define them, or they thought it was somehow their fault.
“For too long, the voices of women in this party have not been heard, and have not been focused on,” Packer said. “That has to change if we’re going to win national elections.”