Donald Trump's not-so-secret weapon with women voters

Donald Trump trails Hillary Clinton by 21 points among women voters. His new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is an expert on wooing them. But her real role is to manage Trump.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Kellyanne Conway, new campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

In 1988, when Kellyanne Fitzpatrick applied for an internship at a major Republican polling firm, three things stood out on her résumé.

“No. 1, she was Phi Beta Kappa,” recalls pollster Neil Newhouse. “No. 2, she had been Miss Teenage New Jersey. And the most impressive, No. 3, she was some kind of blueberry packing champion. We said, ‘We’ve got to at least interview her.’ ”

Needless to say, Ms. Fitzpatrick – now known as Kellyanne Conway – got the internship. Thus was launched her successful career as a pollster who specializes in understanding women voters and consumers. And now she has embarked on her highest-profile job yet: Trump whisperer.

Ms. Conway’s new job title is “campaign manager,” but she’s really a “candidate manager” – and that’s the key role, Mr. Newhouse says.

“This is Donald Trump’s campaign. He’s the one making the news. It revolves around him, and being able to manage Donald Trump requires a lot of talent and skill,” Newhouse says. “That’s what she brings to the table.”

In fact, Conway’s new job may well be more important to Trump’s political fortunes than that of his new campaign CEO, Breitbart News executive chairman Stephen Bannon, whose hiring got most of the press attention last week when Trump shook up his campaign staff.

If the populist, nativist Mr. Bannon represents a link to the “alt-right” conservative fringe that has embraced Trump as one of its own, then Conway represents elements of the Republican electorate that Trump has yet to win over.

“She’s the perfect balance to Steve Bannon,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz tells Bloomberg News. “Bannon is to tell Trump what Trump wants to hear. Kellyanne is going to tell Trump what Trump needs to hear. That’s what makes her different.”

Helping Trump win women's votes

Improving Trump’s image among women, in particular, is a crucial piece of the puzzle as the businessman-turned-politician seeks to turn around his struggling campaign. He trails Hillary Clinton among women by a yawning 21 points – 56 percent to 35 percent – according to a recent NBC News/Survey Monkey tracking poll. Trump leads among men by just 6 percentage points.

Until early May, Conway was working for an outside group backing Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, and then joined Trump as a senior adviser July 1. Her strong verbal skills make her a natural as a frequent surrogate for Trump on TV, doing combat with cable news talking heads – often arguing his case better than he can.

Conway has known Trump for years, and by all accounts works well with him, communicating with him often and at times flying with him on his plane. “You get the impression she’s someone he respects, and that’s critical,” Newhouse says.

Conway is also known to have the confidence of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both close campaign advisers. Last month, Ivanka Trump delivered one of the most compelling speeches of the Republican National Convention, with a focus on the challenges of working mothers.

But another key element of the female electorate that Conway has long studied is unmarried women, who are growing as a proportion of the overall female population and lean Democratic.

“If the Republican Party does not learn to understand unmarried women as the political force and potent voting bloc that they have become, we risk becoming the minority party,” Conway told reporters at a Monitor breakfast in October 2005.

She spoke alongside Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, with whom she co-authored a book, “What Women Really Want.” An important reason single women tend to vote Democratic, Conway explained, is that Democrats put more focus on the social safety net than Republicans. And she is deeply attuned to the purchasing power and decisionmaking clout of single women, as the sole deciders on everything from what car to buy to which candidate to support. In politics, just talking to soccer moms or “security moms” isn’t enough.

'Softening up' Trump

Conway is also sensitive to Trump’s tone, and doesn’t like name-calling or criticizing people on their looks. “Maybe it’s just the mother in me,” she told The Washington Post last month.

Indeed, since Conway joined the campaign, Trump has ramped up his use of the teleprompter and given more serious policy speeches, in an apparent attempt to appear more presidential.

And yet in other, unscripted speeches, he has continued to make the inflammatory comments – talking, for example, about “Second Amendment people” in an allusion to gun owners taking matters into their own hands with regard to a President Hillary Clinton, or calling President Obama the “founder” of the Islamic State.  

It may be that the new Conway-Bannon duo are the yin and yang of Trump 3.0, likely the final remake of this improbable campaign. But if Bannon is there to keep Trump’s enthusiastic base supporters (and Trump himself) happy, Conway certainly has the harder task: Help him expand his base by wooing both women and men who still aren’t sure about this outside-the-box character.

And that, ultimately, points to Conway’s prime role in the campaign, as a constant presence on cable TV and whispering in Trump’s ear.

“She going to be the face, she’s going to be the one who softens him up and helps him make inroads with affluent suburban voters, particularly married women and white college-educated voters,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

“So from that perspective, yes, she is a bigger deal. Because he can’t win, at least as the numbers line up right now, with white working-class voters alone. He has to make inroads into the suburbs.”

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