According to Longwell, Trump's support in her groups started to fall right after the election, as reflected in the Democratic surge in 2018. But Republican women stayed loyal to him, citing the strong economy; after all, many of them supported him in the first place because they believed that as a successful businessman he would handle the economy well.
Many observers were doubly confused because they had expected Hillary Clinton, as the first major party female nominee, to be especially strong with women. And she wasn’t. Trump did poorly with African-American and Hispanic women, because he did poorly with all African-Americans and Hispanics. But he managed to actually win a narrow plurality among white women.
But that mystery has been easy to solve. Over the last three years I conducted dozens of focus groups with both college-educated and non-college-educated female Trump voters. And the answer given most commonly for why they voted for Donald Trump is “I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I voted against Hillary Clinton.”
In 2016, Democrats understood that Hillary Clinton was a deeply polarizing candidate. But even they didn’t grasp the full magnitude of it. Right-leaning and Republican female voters had spent more than a decade hating both Clintons, and they didn’t stop just because Hillary’s opponent was an unrepentant misogynist.
In fact, Bill Clinton’s legacy of similarly disgusting behavior with women—and Hillary Clinton’s defense of her husband—had the effect of blunting Trump’s own execrable track record. These women voters decided that either way, there’d be a guy with a long history of sexual malfeasance living in the White House.
Then things started to get weird:
Since March, I have conducted the focus groups virtually and watched Trump’s position with women weaken in real time.
Interestingly, in the early days of the pandemic the women in the focus groups were frustrated with Trump, but didn’t necessarily hold him responsible for everything that was happening. He hadn’t done great, they said, but it was a tough situation for any president to handle.
It wasn’t until the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests that the bottom started to drop out.
Two weeks after Floyd’s death I ran a focus group with seven women from swing states—all of whom voted for Trump but currently rated him as doing a “very bad” job.
Only one was leaning toward voting for him again. Three were definitely going to vote for Biden. The other three were still making up their minds. But even these undecideds were unequivocal in their distaste for Trump’s posture on race and his handling of the protests. They actively recoiled.
One of the Trump voters who had decided to vote for Biden said, “The stakes are too high now. It’s a matter of life and death.”
That’s a pretty a good distillation of why Trump has been shedding support from women over the last few months. The multiple crises laid bare the fact that Donald Trump isn’t the savvy businessman these women voted for. Instead, they see him as a divisive president who’s in over his head. . . .
Donald Trump and his campaign think they can stop the bleeding with women by leaning into the culture wars and highlighting looters, rioters, and vandals pulling down statues. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of these voters. They don’t see Trump as someone who can protect them from the chaos—they think he’s the source of it.