Republicans are grappling with how to appeal to women voters — a lingering issue that threatens to turn off key voting blocs as the party looks to flip the Senate, retain their House majority and take back the White House in 2024.
A lack of strategic framing on issues like abortion and fielding candidates who speak primarily to the core of their base have at times cost Republicans women voters during elections, some members of the party say.
Now Republicans are staring down a consequential set of elections next year, with some members of the party warning that nominating former President Trump could further thwart those efforts.
“The biggest issue that Republican candidates are going to have in earning the support of women voters is they’re going to have to be willing to openly and assertively reject the principals that Trump has led on, and the only way they can do that is if they reject Trump and they don’t seem willing to do so,” said Jennifer Horn, a former congressional candidate and former chair of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.
Recent surveys have shown that women voters appear slightly less inclined to want to vote for Trump as he makes his latest bid at the White House.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on Wednesday found that 40 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independent women respondents believed their party had a better chance of winning the presidency in 2024 if Trump was their nominee, compared to 56 percent who said someone else. Among men in that same demographic, 43 percent of respondents supported choosing the former president compared to 52 percent who said someone else.
“As the Republican Party has changed, I think that women, obviously, especially suburban women, have largely moved away from the Republican Party as a result of Trump because they don’t like his antics or his rhetoric,” said Sarah Matthews, who served as former White House deputy press secretary under the Trump administration.
“And so I think that moving forward that’s going to be the issue for Republicans to appeal to that voting demographic because at the end of the day, they’ve already soured on Trump,” she continued. “And so if he is ultimately the nominee for 2024, then I don’t know if there’s much that they can do to appeal to them because they’re just turned off by Trump no matter what.”
But Trump’s campaign projected confidence that they would see strong support among women voters in 2024.
“Not only is President Trump the greatest president in U.S. history, but he is a great human being who has advocated for the advancement of women throughout his life. In 2016 and 2020, women voters came out to support President Trump and 2024 will be no different,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told The Hill in a statement.
Republicans also say it’s not just about the candidates they’re fielding, but also about how they’re framing their issues, too.
“…I think the importance here with regards to ‘approaching women’ is understanding that various issues — how you message them can be received differently by male and female voters and not understanding that reality I think can [be] electorally costly,” explained John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster who typically works with Republicans.
Couvillon found, for example, that messaging that used harsher rhetoric turned off women more than it dissuaded men. He explained that could be a “very costly oversight” if that’s not factored into political messaging given that women usually make up between 50 to 55 percent of the electorate.
“Especially from the past midterms, Republicans have a lot to learn about talking to and engaging with women. I think schools and school rights and parental rights was a very effective message, and I think moving into 2024 it doesn’t surprise me that they’re talking about that,” said Jennifer Lim, founder and executive director at Republican Women for Progress.
And Republicans are eager to recalibrate their messaging as Democrats continue to go on the offensive on issues like abortion.
“What I would love to see is the GOP and especially the Republican women rising in the ranks and putting their candidacies out there … I would love for them to come up with some positive policy proposals that actually take into consideration what women are dealing with right now,” Lim said.
On Wednesday, EMILY’s List, a group devoted to electing Democratic women candidates in favor of abortion rights, announced it was targeting 23 House Republicans over their positions on abortion.
Last month the Republican National Committee passed a resolution urging GOP candidates to “go on offense” on the issue through labeling Democratic opponents as extremists. However, Democrats are skeptical Republicans will be able to win over women voters anytime soon.
“I think that they’re going to have a really hard time with younger women because of the intense impact that the Dobbs decision had. It’s kind of like other intervention effects like the Vietnam War,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “There are things that happen to a cohort [like] Watergate, that can be so foundational that it can permanently influence attitudes. But I think the Dobbs decision and that whole battle is going to make it more difficult for the Republicans to get younger women even as they age.”
Exit polling from the 2022 midterm elections show that 47 percent of female voters felt angry about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision that established the constitutional right to access an abortion — and 83 percent of those women voted for a Democratic candidate, according to The Brookings Institution.
There’s also the question of what impact having women at the top of the ticket will have in 2024. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has touted her status as the only woman in the 2024 GOP primary so far, but she has been careful to distance herself from what she dubbed “identity politics” at her campaign launch.
And Republicans are keenly aware that putting a woman on the ticket will not necessarily translate into more female votes, citing the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) decision to choose former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) as a running mate in 2008.
“It would be a naive misunderstanding of women voters to think that just by putting a woman candidate [on the ticket], you can somehow woo women voters,” said Debbie Walsh, director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“It’s not about the gender of the candidate. It’s a party issue and the party issue is tied directly to policy issues,” she said. “Where do these two parties stand on issues that matter to women.”
Democrats, too, say that the GOP is not the only party facing issues with women voters, pointing to the nuances among the voting bloc as a whole.
”I think Republicans have a woman problem, but Democrats have a woman problem too. Because the key for Democrats to win is they have to win women by more than they lose men by, and that means you have to get some white women, you have to get some blue collar women, you have to get some older women. And those are groups that Democrats struggle with,” Lake said.