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Iowa’s Women Could Be Donald Trump’s Undoing

Three days after the terrorist attack in which 14 people were killed at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, a crowd of 1,500 Republican faithful streamed into the sunny lobby of Cedar Rapids’ U.S. Cellular Center, passed through metal detectors, and took their seats for a four-hour oratory marathon by four presidential candidates, ostensibly focused on economic issues. But people’s minds seemed elsewhere — flags, as you drove through the city, waved at half-staff, and murmurs about homegrown terror were amplifying quickly.

He wasn’t in attendance that day in Iowa, and it would be two more days before he would make a headline-grabbing statement that all Muslims should be barred from entering the United States, but Donald Trump’s name hung in the air. Trump’s forte — making speeches in forte — has, in part, defined the Republican primary so far, as if one of the Big Swinging Dicks of “Liar’s Poker” fame had decided to up and run for president; not only does Trump want two cars in every American’s garage, he wants a pair of gold-plated TruckNutz hanging off them too. That bombast was on display at this week’s debate in Las Vegas, taking shape in statements like “nuclear, the power and the devastation is very important to me,” per the new political normal.

Trump continues to lead among Republicans in national polls with 33 percent support, according to the RealClearPolitics average; he’s winning most demographics. This is roundly considered a disaster by the Republican Party leadership. All across the country, men in smoke-filled rooms are closing drapes, breaking out the humidors, and putting their bald spots together to tackle the conundrum of the irascible millionaire.

Given the unexpected strength of Trumpmentum, any demographic pumping the brakes is likely to be welcomed by the Republican establishment. Evangelicals have been wary of him in the state, and women there might just be part of the solution to the grand poobahs’ problem — when it comes to Trump, at least in Iowa, the female sex is more circumspect.

Enter Ted Cruz, and at least according to some polls, Marco Rubio.

Even before the much-anticipated Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll was released this past weekend, showing Cruz up on Trump by 10 percentage points overall, The Donald was struggling with women voters. According to a CNN poll released Dec. 7, Trump had 36 percent of men’s votes in Iowa, but only 29 percent of women thought he would Make America Great Again. Iowa women are also less likely than men to have made up their minds at this point in the process — 56 percent of them said in the CNN survey that they were still trying to decide on a candidate, while only 41 percent of men said the same. There’s also the decline of Ben Carson’s candidacy to consider; a month ago, Carson was leading among women in Iowa at 25 percent, but now his campaign is struggling, his polling numbers are dropping, and those female voters are looking elsewhere.

Cruz seems to be riding on some momentum, which is a thing in Iowa, the land of poorly managed expectations (quelle horreur, Howard!) and media bumps. The Des Moines Register poll showed that women overwhelmingly preferred Cruz to Trump, 28 percent to 13 percent, but Rubio was also doing well with women according to a Monmouth University poll released last week; although Cruz led overall, it showed Rubio leading among women, 23 percent to Cruz’s 19 percent.

If they’re looking to make a play for these votes, candidates will, in the manner of early aughts Mel Gibson, have to determine what women want. Mike Huckabee certainly did it in 2008 when he won the caucuses with 34 percent overall and got 40 percent of Iowa’s female Republican caucus-goers to break his way. In the GOP, that’s a subtle pursuit. Although Democrats have relied on rhetoric about women’s health when trying to energize a certain female voter base, Republican or Republican-leaning women are more slippery quarry.

Chris Wilson, Cruz’s pollster, recalled work he did on Greg Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign against Wendy Davis, who was coming off her folk-hero filibuster of an abortion bill in the Texas state legislature. The Abbott campaign, he said, was particularly nervous about losing suburban women on the ideological fence. But they discovered a boon in their fight for female votes while combing through polling data: “We found a bunch of pent-up anger about red-light traffic cameras among suburban women.” Wilson said.

“Women really responded strongly to the outlawing of red-light traffic cameras,” he said. So, “we built an analytic profile of it, and we found that for suburban swing-voting women, it was their top motivational issue — so we did just a ton of targeting of suburban women in all the major metropolitan areas.”

It may have worked — the Abbott campaign won suburban women, and the election, by a landslide.

GOP women’s motivational issues tend to be camouflaged, lying in the tall grasses of the general electorate. Cruz and Rubio have been beating the national-security drum these past couple of weeks with the gusto of the bongo guy from Guster, which might make a lot of sense if they’re hoping to win women’s votes. As it turns out, one particular issue currently concerns Republican women in Iowa over all others: terrorism. Thirty-four percent of them said they were concerned about it in that CNN poll, compared with 21 percent of Republican men. That sets Republican women apart from Democratic women in Iowa too; only 12 percent of that group were worried enough about terrorism to make it the issue they’d vote on.

The literature on voting patterns among GOP women is pretty thin, according to Susan Carroll of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. But, she said, “generally, they look a lot like men in their preferences.” It didn’t surprise her, though, that women are responding to the Republican candidates’ messages on national security. Carroll pointed to President George W. Bush’s courting of so-called “security moms” in the 2004 election. “He was trying to put out a message about protecting children and families from terrorism,” she said. Fifty-six percent of married women with children voted to re-elect Bush that year.

“I would say that women voters are just as hawkish [as men], if not more so,” Wilson said. “Particularly mothers end up being more hawkish than males on national-security issues — that’s why we saw Reagan do so well with women in 1980, and that’s why I think Sen. Cruz will do very well with women this year.”

That focus on national security was on display when Cruz took the stage in Cedar Rapids. He came on the heels of Rand Paul, who, wearing jeans, a tie and no jacket, had paced across the stage like a New Age speaker, haranguing against excessive military spending and sharing his dream of one day auditing the Federal Reserve. Cruz didn’t pace. He planted, hand in jacket pocket, boots to stage floor, and spoke to a noticeably enthused crowd about nothing but terrorism, radical Islam and Second Amendment rights.

“If I am elected president, we will defeat radical Islamic terror,” he said to applause. “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion.” Cruz paused, lips pursed. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”

It was too dark to see how many of the women were cheering.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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