Level Green, Pennsylvania, a suburb of 4,000 people about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, is a very conservative town, said Sue DeMarco, a 66-year-old resident.
“I see a lot of Trump banners in front yards,” she said.
And Mitt Romney got 61 percent of the vote in 2012 in Westmoreland County, home to Level Green, compared with 47 percent of Americans who voted for Romney nationwide. But DeMarco, who is retired and has been married for 41 years, is baffled by the strange turns in this year’s election campaign. Although she voted for Donald Trump in April’s Pennsylvania primary, by August she had decided that she simply wouldn’t vote in the general election.
“What scares me about Donald Trump is the way he conducts himself,” she said. “I think he is intelligent, I think he has our best interests at heart, I think he really does want to do things to make this country great again, but I worry about his … volatility,” she said, adding, “he says things that are totally inappropriate.”
But by October, DeMarco had decided to vote for Trump. “I feel I need to,” she said. “I’m still not happy with my candidate. But the more I hear about Hillary and what’s going on with her …” Her voice trailed off. “My vote is against her.”
Suburban women are a crucial demographic group in any presidential election, but they have been particularly sought after by Democrats this year who hope to capitalize on Trump’s unpopularity among women, especially those with a college education. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll (taken in mid-September, before the first debate), Hillary Clinton is winning a plurality of suburban women, 43 percent to Trump’s 34 percent. While Mitt Romney was viewed negatively by 42 percent of suburban women in 2012, Trump is seen in a negative light by 60 percent to 70 percent of suburban women this year.
White suburban women like DeMarco are the swing vote within the swing vote. White women overall consistently prefer Republicans, sometimes by a narrow margin, compared with women of all races, who trend Democratic. But white suburban women have switched party allegiances several times in recent elections, voting Republican in 2004, Democratic in 2008, and Republican again in 2012, according to an analysis by NORC at the University of Chicago of data from the General Social Survey. Among white suburban women, 56 percent supported Obama in 2008, dropping to 46 percent in 2012.
“The women’s vote in a tight election can be the difference between who wins and who loses,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “For moderate white Republican women, there’s a great probability their vote will affect the race.”
Walsh said many of those voters would have been comfortable supporting Romney or George W. Bush but are uneasy about Trump.
“In last week’s debate Trump did himself no favors with women either with his style or his substance,” Walsh said.
Most pollsters don’t release data on suburban women as a cohort; fewer offer data just for white suburban women. Relevant contextual information can be drawn from surveys and studies about women and white women with college degrees, since suburbs tend to have higher college education rates and three-quarters of suburban women are white. This year, for example, white women with college degrees are supporting Clinton over Trump, 57 to 32 percent. Among white women who don’t have a college degree, Trump leads 52 to 40 percent.
Both Clinton and Trump have focused significant campaign efforts on winning suburban women in key swing states including Pennsylvania and Virginia. Clinton does not have a majority of them, and the NBC/WSJ poll shows that in mid-September 14 percent of suburban women were planning to vote for a third-party candidate. Others might simply stay home.
Not all GOP-leaning women are torn about their choices. Carrie Almond, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, said her group feels confident that it has its members’ mandate to rally women behind Trump and convey party unity. The membership organization took a vote among state leaders and ratified a unity pledge.
Since then, she and her dog Reagan have driven through more than 30 states in a bus called Rosie, doing membership and get-out-the-vote rallies across the country. “Women come up to me and say, ‘You need to get out there and be our voice and tell people that women are behind Donald Trump,’” Almond said by phone, right before Rosie crossed from Nevada into Arizona. “When the press comes to those rallies, they hear it. They hear that women are behind Donald Trump.”
Trump led among non-Hispanic white women in three states where September Quinnipiac polls measured by both gender and race — Georgia, Florida and Virginia — though by very different margins. But Trump’s support among white women tends to be smaller than Romney’s was in many key states. Although 48 percent of white women in Virginia who are likely voters support Trump, according to Quinnipiac, 59 percent supported Romney in 2012.
After 2008, according to the NORC analysis, suburban women became more likely to identify as political independents, with Republicans losing the most ground initially, though they began to rebound after 2012. Slightly more independents lean Democratic than Republican. White suburban women are more likely to be Republican than suburban women overall. In 2014, 29 percent identified as Republicans, 24 percent as Democrats.
In other election years, that GOP rebound among women would likely provide a springboard for a strong Republican candidate, but Trump’s temperament and communication style has dampened his support. An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll after the first presidential debate found a distinct gender-based split in how the debate affected perceptions. After the debate, more women said Trump lacked the personality and temperament to serve than Clinton, by a 12-point margin. But among men, it was the reverse, by a 13-point margin.
DeMarco, despite her concerns about Trump’s words and demeanor, decided her vote was needed to block a Clinton victory. She sees herself as supporting traditional Republican values more than any one candidate.
“You work hard, you save your money, you do the right thing, don’t expect people to take care of you,” she said. “I think those things are represented more from the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. It just seems like the Democratic Party wants to make you feel dependent on them all the time.”
But this year, she said, the election has been “bizarre.”
“I don’t know of another word to use to describe it,” she said. “To watch what went on with the Republicans during the primary was just insane.”