Will Supreme Court fight help or hurt Trump with women? Likely both.

Why We Wrote This

President Trump may get a lift among some conservative women uneasy with his personal style – but could also lose abortion-rights supporters who voted for him in 2016. Either way, a massive partisan gender gap is likely to persist.

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Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as he arrives to speak during a campaign rally at Pittsburgh International Airport, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, in Moon Township, Pa.

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Amid a high-stakes battle for a Supreme Court seat that could tilt the court further to the right for years to come, the women’s vote is once again front and center – particularly in suburban parts of battleground states. 

Some political observers speculate that President Donald Trump may win over some so-called Never Trump Republicans by nominating a conservative woman to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Conservative women who didn’t vote for Mr. Trump four years ago because they found him personally offensive “can potentially be brought back into the fold,” says Jennifer Braceras, director of the conservative and libertarian Independent Women’s Law Center, which takes no position on abortion. 

Yet in 2016, voters with mostly pro-abortion-rights attitudes actually made up more than a fifth of Mr. Trump’s support in key battleground states, according to David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. And many of those voters may react negatively to Mr. Trump’s likely pick.

“If he picks a woman who is deeply conservative, which he will,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “that is not going to make women who are uncomfortable or worse with his positions on a host of issues feel like he’s a champion for women.”

President Donald Trump knows he has a woman problem. 

It was evident during last month’s Republican National Convention, when female speaker after female speaker presented a caring and empathetic picture of the president, in contrast to his public persona and policies that have alienated some women. 

It has been evident since the Sept. 18 death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and President Trump’s pledge to nominate a woman to succeed her. The announcement is slated for Saturday.

It’s been in evidence, frankly, since the start of Mr. Trump’s presidency, which he won with 53% of men’s votes but just 42% of women voters. Polls show the gender gap has only widened over the past four years. And the president’s recent references to “suburban housewives,” seen by some as a dog whistle to women on the issue of urban unrest, may not be helping.

Now, amid a high-stakes battle for a Supreme Court seat that could tilt the court further to the right for years to come, and with the Nov. 3 election just 41 days away, the women’s vote is front and center – particularly in suburban parts of battleground states. But for all the last-minute efforts by the president to woo women, in the end nothing is likely to alter the larger dynamic: that for four decades, women have favored Democrats for president by larger margins than men, a phenomenon that has become turbo-charged by Mr. Trump’s controversial style. 

“At this point, the gender gap is completely baked in,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. 

Emily Elconin/Reuters
A woman waves a Trump flag as she takes part in a classic car cruise in support of President Donald Trump and law enforcement in Frankenmuth, Michigan, September 13, 2020.

“If he picks a woman who is deeply conservative, which he will,” Ms. Walsh adds, “that is not going to make women who are uncomfortable, or worse, with his positions on a host of issues feel like he’s a champion for women.”

Those issues include the president’s handling of immigration, family separation on the U.S.-Mexico border, and more recently, the pandemic. 

Mr. Trump also faces the possibility that replacing Justice Ginsburg with a conservative woman could cost him votes: the subset of Trump voters from 2016 who might be motivated to vote for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, now that the future of abortion rights could be headed for the Supreme Court. 

Survey data from 2016 shows that voters (women and men) with mostly pro-abortion-rights attitudes made up more than a fifth of Mr. Trump’s support in key battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa, according to David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. He cites data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study at Harvard University. 

Nationwide, Mr. Wasserman notes, 22% of Trump voters “leaned pro-choice” and another 13% held mixed views. 

Dreama Clark, a retired professor of nursing in Toano, Virginia, calls herself economically conservative and socially liberal, including being “pro-choice.” She voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but soured on him over his persona and his handling of the pandemic. 

Justice Ginsburg’s death has only reinforced Ms. Clark’s plan to vote for Mr. Biden – but she’s not sanguine about the future, including what she sees as an erosion of America’s separation-of-powers system and a judiciary that is becoming increasingly political. 

“If Trump wins, I worry about the country,” she says. “If Trump loses, I worry about the country.”

Even some voters who call themselves “pro-life” had already turned against Mr. Trump before the death of Justice Ginsburg, and now say they are all the more motivated to vote for Mr. Biden. 

Alex Brandon/AP
People pay respects as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose under the portico at the top of the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Washington. Justice Ginsburg, 87, died on Sept. 18.

“I feel as passionate as ever about defeating Donald Trump,” says Sandy from suburban Des Moines, Iowa, who asked that her last name not be used. She attends an evangelical church, opposes abortion, and voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but objects to his behavior and language. 

“I say, what good are conservative judges if we still have a country where we hate each other so much and can’t get along,” she says.

Energy on both sides

Still, some political observers say Mr. Trump may pick up support over his promised nomination of a conservative woman justice. 

“It may help him with undecided voters, and it may help him with so-called Never Trump conservative women, of which there are many,” says Jennifer Braceras, director of the conservative and libertarian Independent Women’s Law Center, which takes no position on abortion. 

Some conservative women didn’t vote for Mr. Trump four years ago, because they found him personally offensive, and “really don’t want to vote for him this time,” Ms. Braceras says. “But the courts are very important to them, and they’d be thrilled to see a female replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They can potentially be brought back into the fold.” 

There are also Trump voters from 2016 who will be more enthusiastic about voting for him again with a Supreme Court seat at stake. Felicia Stafford, a resident of Bedford, New York, who works in advertising sales, calls herself a “progressive Republican” who doesn’t much like Mr. Trump’s personality. She supports gun control and climate change measures. But she’s also a practicing Catholic and firmly anti-abortion, and thus welcomes a Trump nominee to the court. 

Ultimately, then, the Supreme Court confirmation process of Justice Ginsburg’s replacement might well energize voters on both sides, and so the net political impact could be a wash. 

This election is all about who’s motivated to turn out. And if women “turn out in larger numbers than they did in 2016 or 2018, then Trump loses,” says Morley Winograd, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. 

The debate will sharpen when Mr. Trump announces his nominee. The front-runner is believed to be Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. As a devout Catholic with seven children, she is a favorite of movement conservatives and opponents of abortion rights. 

Another prospect is Judge Barbara Lagoa of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Judge Lagoa, a Cuban-American from Florida, is reportedly favored by some Trump political advisers as a way to excite voters in the nation’s biggest battleground state, a must-win for Mr. Trump’s reelection.

No guarantee of support

Still, naming a woman to a high-level government position does not, in and of itself, guarantee the support of women voters, says Lee Epstein, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. 

But if Mr. Trump is using his high court nominee as an electoral plea to certain demographics, he would certainly not be the first president to do so. Professor Epstein offers some examples: President Dwight Eisenhower nominated William Brennan to appeal to Northeastern Catholics. President Richard Nixon nominated Lewis Powell, from Suffolk, Virginia, as a signal to Southerners. 

Most relevant to today, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor, as the first woman Supreme Court justice. President Reagan, whose election in 1980 saw the debut of the gender gap, was eager to appeal to women. With Justice O’Connor, he ended up with someone less ideologically conservative than he would have preferred, owing to the dearth of qualified women at the time. 

Today, presidents have more top female talent from whom to choose. 

“Because the judiciary has grown more diverse, presidents no longer face such an either-or, and can check multiple boxes in each nomination,” Professor Epstein says. 

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