In this week’s politics Slack chat, we talk Donald Trump, sexism and the general election. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Greetings, all! With no debate or election this week, let’s consider a longer-term problem: Trump and women. The Internet spent the past week picking over a startling fact: Women (and I’m talking Republican, Democratic, unaffiliated, etc.) disproportionately don’t like Trump. We’ll get to why in a moment, along with what it means electorally, but first question: The data has shown for a while that Trump has less support among women than among men — why all of a sudden the media interest?
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I think it’s a few things. First, because there are no elections or debates this week, the media is looking for new ground to cover. And with Trump ahead in the delegate count, the pivot to the general election is obvious. Second, I think the whole Heidi Cruz picture thing really put the issue at the forefront. Even Newt Gingrich and Ann Coulter are having a tough time defending Trump on this.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): One answer is that the media is mostly dudes. But this is part of a broader issue also, which is that the media has only just now started to write how terrible a general election candidate Trump might be. Trump’s favorables among the general electorate might have gotten a bit worse, but they’ve been epically terrible since he launched his bid (actually, since before he launched it). Women are a big part of that, of course.
I mean, it literally took nine months for the conventional wisdom to recognize that someone could be astoundingly popular with a plurality of the electorate and extremely unpopular with a majority of it.
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): The media interest has always been there; Megyn Kelly gets all kinds of credit for bringing up Trump’s treatment of women from the very beginning of the campaign. But there’s been a host of crazy things that he’s said throughout the election, about a host of other groups and the misogyny thing has basically been this baseline element of Trump; it’s the foundation to his looming political tower built by big hands and no loans. Just look at the news that broke today: Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was charged with battery against former Breitbart News Network reporter Michelle Fields.
But I think that sexism didn’t bubble back up into the conversation — i.e., the candidates talking about it — until it was about someone’s wife, which is troubling. It’s good that Trump’s sexism is being addressed, but it’s also important to note that it wasn’t addressed by a candidate until it directly hurt that candidate in his personal life. There are some notions of chivalry and protecting your woman that are at play here, so it’s also about the male ego. Wives are supposed to be off limits in politics, though Hillary Clinton might know that that certainly isn’t the case.
natesilver: Yeah, another part of the answer is that Trump puts so much crap out there that it’s been hard for the media to focus on any one part of the story for very long.
micah: So just how poorly is Trump doing among women? Republican women and women overall?
clare.malone: By the way, readers, one person in this chatroom is wearing a “Feminist” T-shirt today. Guess who.
Harry: From The Huffington Post:
As you can see, Republican women in particular are much more unfavorable towards Trump than to Cruz or John Kasich (or the dearly departed Marco Rubio). Those are horrible numbers.
The same poll has Trump with just a 21 percent positive rating with all women nationwide. His negative rating with women nationally is 70 percent.
clare.malone: This might be a historical level of dislike, no?
harry: No major party nominee has had that bad of a rating, based on the data I look at.
micah: So Trump does really poorly with women — it hasn’t stopped him in the Republican primary, why will it stop him in the general?
natesilver: Because winning 51 percent of 100 percent is way harder than winning 35 percent of 35 percent?
clare.malone: The Republican primary is kind of nuts that way. If Republican voters were rational actors, thinking strategically for the general, then Kasich would be the nominee.
natesilver: I mean, there are some decent arguments to be made that Trump could win a general election. We’re overdue to do more exploration of those. I just don’t find the argument that because he beat expectations in the primary, he’ll also do so in the general election to be very well thought out. The reason is that a big part of Trump’s success in the primary is because he figured out that in a 17-candidate field, you can double down on a plurality and win, not worrying that much about what the rest of the electorate thinks of you. That doesn’t work in the general election.
micah: So if 70 percent of women dislike Trump on Nov. 8, he’s basically guaranteed to lose, right?
clare.malone: More women vote than men, that’s for sure. According to our friends over at Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, American women have cast between 4 and 7 million more votes than men in the last couple of presidential elections.
micah: This has been a pet peeve of mine in how the media talks about women, as if they’re simply another demographic group, like Latino voters or retirees. Women are a majority of voters, making up a roughly equal share of the electorate in every state.
natesilver: Yeah. Apart from the fact that Trump’s misogyny is really gross, it’s also really dumb as an electoral strategy.
clare.malone: Yup, women contain political multitudes — white women, for instance, went for Mitt Romney in 2012.
micah: Of course they contain multitudes! They’re over half the electorate!
natesilver: Yeah, a Machiavellian could argue that demonizing blacks or Hispanics or Muslims or gays is a winning, if incredibly cynical, electoral strategy for the GOP. That doesn’t work when you’re talking about 51 percent of the population. Furthermore, the fact that Trump doesn’t realize this suggests either that (i) he’s just making shit up as he goes along instead of being some sort of brilliant tactician; (ii) he’s a sexist down to his core and can’t help himself; or (iii) both.
harry: At the end of the day, elections are about getting more votes. Democratic candidates for the House got more votes among women than Republicans did in 2014. Their problem was that Republicans did really well with men. So Republicans can benefit from a gender gap, too. Right now, though, Trump is losing that tradeoff. He’s down big time in the polls, as I pointed out early Tuesday.
natesilver: But for all that said, I’m wondering if we’re going about looking at Trump’s general election numbers sort of backward? We know they’re really terrible, enough that he’d lose in a landslide today against Clinton, even though she’s also pretty unpopular. We also know that numbers can change a lot and that March general-election numbers have historically not been all that predictive.
Listen to the latest episode of the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast.
micah: So that’s my question: How much can Trump’s popularity with women change between now and November?
natesilver: Or to put it just slightly differently: Do the gender splits in Trump’s numbers suggest he’ll have a harder time improving his numbers than if he were equally unpopular with both men and women?
clare.malone: A great mystery … or perhaps not a mystery at all. To Nate’s point above, about the various theories of why Trump says sexist things, I think he kind of can’t help it, and while his sexist comments are being written off by the GOP electorate who’s voting for him, it’s going to be increasingly hard for him to pivot away from that image in the general election. I think he’ll try to do it, though, by deploying his oh-so-poised and career-oriented daughter, Ivanka, and I think he’ll also do it by just being less vituperative in his speech — he’ll pour a little whole milk on the hot-sauce rhetoric and hope for the best.
micah: But, Clare, hasn’t Trump just said too many sexist things? His record on this was long and bad when the campaign started! And it has only gotten worse.
clare.malone: I mean, to us sitting here, sure, but maybe not for the electorate, right? Who knows, people, women included, might think that his “outsiderism” is more important to the country and outweighs his sexism. I think that’s unlikely — he’s gonna catch a lot of flak — but that’s a thing that could happen.
natesilver: You’re probably going to see a lot of ads like this from Democrats:
micah: But that is why, to Nate’s question, I think this will be harder for Trump to change than if he were disliked equally by both genders …
clare.malone: Why? Because it’s more entrenched and women will reinforce the dislike more and more, as in an echo chamber of Trumpian disgust?
micah: Yeah. That is, there’s a very clear real-world explanation for Trump’s unpopularity with women — it’s not due to the vagaries of the news cycle or a well-run campaign against him. He’s sexist, and women don’t like him.
natesilver: One other big theme is that Trump had an element of surprise in the Republican race, which is part of why his opponents never really developed an effective strategy against him. That won’t be true for him against Clinton, who has had months to think about a strategy and put together opposition research that the GOP campaigns skimmed over.
clare.malone: Right. The Clinton people are just biding their time; they’re not directly engaging with Trump yet, but it’s gonna happen and it’s gonna be a full-scale assault.
harry: Again, I call on the Simpsons for discussing Trump’s strategy:
micah: OK, let me argue against myself now … the press has almost been begging Trump to start acting “presidential,” which suggests to me that if he does mellow/moderate, the media won’t do a very good job of holding him to his record, and instead marvel at how much of a “statesman” Trump has become. So in a few months, the raging sexist we’re all familiar with might seem a distant memory, no?
clare.malone: No. There will be his years of comments to contend with, and if people start treating him like a real candidate and asking him about that historical record, the sexism issue won’t die.
micah: IDK, you seem to have more faith in the media than I do.
clare.malone: You’re a member of it! Have faith in yourself.
natesilver: The media’s a big, complicated thing. The “Morning Joe” panel will almost definitely be talking about the amazing “pivot” that Trump has made.
clare.malone: This Cruz’s wife dust-up is the amuse bouche of sexism talk for the general election; even if Trump tones down his rhetoric, I think I have faith in people — or maybe I’m encouraging people — to apply some rigor to examining his record, writing about his record, thinking about his record.
harry: Yeah, Trump has faced more of an onslaught from fellow candidates in the past month than he had previously. That will only continue, especially from the Clinton camp.
clare.malone: Sexism is alive and well, and exists not just in the flagrant foul form that Trump has exhibited, but also in other insidious ways. I think even if Trump “pivots,” people will continue to call him on these subtler forms of sexism, and that’s a darn good political strategy. It’s also good for American society, because we’re all pretty sexist, frankly. Including yours truly — social conditioning is hard to shake!
natesilver: I mean, this thing could go a lot of different ways. It’s possible that “the fundamentals” will take over, and that we’ll have the close election we might have expected before the GOP’s dumpster fire of a nomination process. In that event, I think you’ll see the media covering Trump’s sexism through the same tired “both sides” framework evident in headlines like this:
It’s also possible that the bottom will fall out from Trump. Everyone will abandon him, including a lot of Republicans who would ordinarily be defending him, because they want to (i) save their seats in Congress and (ii) eviscerate Trump so that they will get their party back in 2020. As John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and other folks have pointed out, a lot of the reason the “fundamentals” work in general elections is because both sides are pulling on the tug-of-war rope with equal force. A really divisive nomination process could change that.
harry: Of course, Trump hasn’t won any nomination yet.
natesilver: No, he hasn’t. And stuff like this won’t make it easier for Trump if he comes up short of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
clare.malone: Whatever the outcome, the men’s rights movement is certainly going to be typing frantically away on their subreddit channel.