Women, 51 percent of the U.S. population, do not like Donald Trump very much.
In national polls, Trump is down by about 6 percentage points, and Hillary Clinton is beating him among women voters 58 to 35 percent, according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll. Even among Republican women, Trump’s prospects have tanked; he’s now getting the support of only 72 percent of them, down from the 93 percent that Mitt Romney won in 2012.
Enter Kellyanne Conway, who Trump hired as his campaign manager last week. Conway, a longtime GOP pollster, owns her own firm, “the polling company, inc./WomanTrend,” and if you couldn’t guess it from the name, she’s made a career in no small part by providing advice to politicians and marketers about what women want (a question Mel Gibson never definitively answered). Conway even wrote a book, “What Women Really Want,” with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, and when she joined the campaign last month as an adviser, The Washington Post wrote a story about her, headlined “Inside Donald Trump’s Strategy to Win Back Women.”
Since the Trump team shakeup last week, Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart Media who was named the campaign’s CEO, has grabbed most of the attention; that the swaggering alt-right site which has seen a rise in its prominence since the beginning of the Trump campaign would now be officially connected to the nominee seemed a perfect 2016 twist. But judging by Trump’s actions during the past few days, Conway’s influence may be at work more than Bannon’s. At least so far. There were Trump’s remarks that he regrets certain unnamed comments in the past, his pitch to black voters and his now-waffling stance on the mass deportations of 11 million undocumented immigrants that has been the cornerstone of his campaign.
Conway is a pollster and she knows the numbers. These outreach efforts by Trump may be calculated to appeal to a particular set of crucial women voters that Trump is failing with — college educated and married ones. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 48 percent of white college-educated women; Trump is currently getting only 38 percent of this demographic, down from a pre-convention 42 percent (women did not like his doom-and-gloom show, turns out). Romney won 55 percent of married women in 2012; a Reuters tracking poll over the last month showed that Trump was getting only 37 percent of married women.
A strategy of softening Trump’s rough edges through admitting his missteps seems a play right from Conway’s book. “Women do not view themselves and their lives through a political prism, so these people and processes that try to appeal to them based on ‘right versus left’ rather than ‘right versus wrong’ don’t get it,” Conway said in an interview with her alma mater’s magazine in 2006. That initial outreach speech to black voters? It was done in a predominately white town, leading to speculation that the remarks were a gambit to prove to certain suburban voters — those married, college-educated women — that Trump isn’t a bigot after all.
“This isn’t a data position so much as it’s a ‘Trump whisperer’ position,” Chris Wilson, Ted Cruz’s former pollster, wrote in an email about Conway’s new role on the campaign. “Kellyanne has a career of experience working with conservative groups to help shape their talking points into something that fits a little more comfortably into the mainstream discourse.”
A former supporter of Ted Cruz’s (she headed one of his PACs), Conway’s most notable Google result prior to July might be from when she told a crowd of Republicans in early 2013 that rape should be thought of as a “four-letter word.” This after Todd Akin’s remarks about the female body having ways of “shutting the whole thing down” in the case of “legitimate rape.” Akin was Conway’s client.
But it’s not just Trump who is on message in the battle to win back women voters — it’s Conway herself.
A highly visible television presence already, she projects calm in a campaign marked by bluster and brash comments so far off the cuff as to be in the armpit. In a campaign that has earned its keep through television, Conway’s presence on nearly every political program of late seems as much a strategy as Trump’s softening rhetoric on the stump. Paul Manafort, in his pinstripes and power ties, was an Old Spice television presence, not doing much to complicate the perception that the Trump team was filled with anything other than middle-aged men.
This is not to say that Conway is without her barbs. “You think you would know who Hillary Clinton is if she wasn’t married to Bill Clinton?” she said in a recently released clip from an upcoming documentary. She told the same documentary crew that many live polls were miscalculating Trump support because of stigma. “It’s become socially desirable, especially if you’re a college-educated person in the U.S., to say that you’re against Donald Trump,” she said. That claim is dubious at best.
But Conway often mentions that she is a mother to “four young children” as she works through her television talking points. Conway says she doesn’t like personal insults. She seems at times like a one-woman chorus chanting “one of us, one of us” at college-educated and married women who might just be tuning in. “Big fan of yours,” Megyn Kelly told Conway at the end of an interview with her earlier this week.
“It’s tough to be a woman in politics on either side of the aisle,” Celinda Lake, Conway’s co-author, told me. “She’s very smart about how she negotiates that.” Lake, who said Conway is “very smart about power and access,” will undoubtedly be a force trying to shape Trump behind the scenes, but that her utility as a public-facing campaign entity is undeniable.
“Unlike the Breitbart guy, she’s not going to cause you any trouble,” Lake said, a reference to Bannon.
The only question lingering around Conway is a simple one, Lake said.
“Will Donald Trump really listen to her?”