Why most GOP women are standing by their man

Last month, a New York jury held former President Donald Trump accountable for defaming a woman he was found civilly liable of sexually assaulting. So far, accountability is something his voters, including a majority of GOP women, have not yet demanded in the 2024 election cycle.

January marked the first official test of Trump’s assumed front-runner status for this year’s Republican presidential nomination and the start of a campaign that will feature frequent detours to a courthouse. The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary — both of which Trump won — ran parallel to the second civil trial between Trump and writer E. Jean Carroll.

In 2016, Trump was elected a month after a tape emerged of him bragging about grabbing women, saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” This year, he appears headed back to the Republican nomination, as popular as ever with his base — including GOP women who are more focused on issues like the economy than accusations against Trump. What a difference eight years does not make.

“The reality is Republican women are Republican for a reason — they strongly support those policies and are willing to overlook this,” said Melissa Deckman, chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute whose work focuses on the role of women in conservative politics. “You won’t see them switching their allegiance. … They’re sticking with him through thick and thin in ways very similar to Republican men. And women can be sexist, too.”

While many women have moved away from the Republican Party since 2016, women are among Trump’s staunchest surrogates and supporters: Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, House Republican Conference Chair and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

The lone woman and lone remaining challenger to Trump for the GOP nomination, Nikki Haley, has only recently begun to attack the ex-president, but has focused on issues including his cognitive ability, his age and the controversy he kicks up. Meanwhile, Trump has referred to Haley as “Birdbrain,” has mocked her birth name and raised racist questions about Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and her eligibility to run for president.

She has gained some momentum, but she still lags Trump, including in support from women in her own party. With high-profile GOP women continuing to back the former president despite his record on gender, should the party’s women voters choose any differently?

In Iowa’s caucuses — held the day before the trial began — Trump’s support among women exceeded his support among men, 53% to 49%, according to exit polling. In New Hampshire — the same week the jury awarded $83.3 million in damages to Carroll, 51% of women supported Trump while 47% supported Haley.

Generally speaking, conservative voters reject the idea of gender politics, said Jennifer Horn, former chair of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee and a co-founder of anti-Trump political action committee The Lincoln Project.

“Sometimes that’s an honorable reflection of how they feel, and sometimes it’s just an excuse to fall back on. But I don’t understand why any woman would ever vote for Donald Trump. There’s nothing woven into Trumpism that is remotely supportive of women,” she said.

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addresses guests during a campaign stop at the Nevada Fairgrounds community building on Dec. 18, 2023 in Nevada, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson | Getty Images

In South Carolina, Haley’s home state, the latest polling shows Trump’s support at 64%, compared with 32% for the former governor. The state party has also lined up behind the former president, who touts more than 150 endorsements from lawmakers, including Rep. Nancy Mace — whose opponent Trump backed and whom Haley endorsed in her 2022 race.

Haley, elected in 2010 as one of the first women governors of color and the youngest governor in the country at the time, touts her popularity while in office. But she was last elected in 2014, when the state’s GOP electorate looked very different. And it’s unclear how many of her votes in the South Carolina primary could come from Democrats who cross over to cast a ballot for her in opposition to Trump.

For her part, Haley has mostly sidestepped Trump’s legal woes as “a distraction” and has not weighed in on specifics. Asked last week on “Meet the Press” if the jury’s ruling should disqualify Trump as a presidential candidate, Haley responded: “I think the American people decide who should be disqualified. They’re going to see this for what it is.” She added, “I absolutely trust the jury. I think they made their decision based on the evidence.” The answer drew criticism from Trump and his supporters.

Horn explained, “There is something in the modern conservative movement where these people have convinced themselves that the majority of these accusations are fabricated,” referring to the civil accusations of sexual assault and defamation by Carroll and the 91 felony counts Trump faces in four separate cases.

For these voters, Horn said, “Trump and men like him become unwitting victims to women. It’s a factless, unsupported assumption that that is the case.”

Republican strategist Rina Shah said she’s hearing from GOP women that they’re more focused on the economy and winning in November and that even if they are aware of Trump’s record with women, it’s not a priority or a dealbreaker.

“Even though they didn’t like [Trump], I always hear from people, ‘We were fine, economically more sound.’ The trust, they feel, was misplaced in [Joe] Biden. They would rather have a situation where the price of eggs isn’t what it is. They don’t care,” Shah said. And many aren’t willing to bet on Haley. “American women are practical; they don’t want to take a chance on a loser.”

One of Haley’s arguments against Trump has been that “chaos follows him” — and that chaos has meant some voters aren’t as clear on the details of his legal issues as they are on the price of groceries.

That’s made easier by key allies blaming the media or Biden and dismissing questions about the jury’s decision. Stefanik — considered a possible Trump running mate — lumped all the cases against Trump as “witch hunts,” even after he had been found liable in the Carroll cases.

New polling from Bloomberg and Morning Consult shows that almost a quarter of Republicans in swing states say they’re unwilling to support Trump if he’s convicted of a crime. But it’s unclear which of those cases, if any, will make it to trial before November. (In the civil cases brought by Carroll, he has been ordered to pay $88.3 million total.)

Haley has vowed to stay in the race at least through Super Tuesday on March 5. By then, it could be even more clear how women are weighing in on the GOP contest — and specifically, how loyal they remain to Trump despite his transgressions.

“He has made it OK to dehumanize 51% of the population,” Horn said. “To what degree have some of these women who vote for him dehumanized themselves somehow? They are accepting his definition of women. It’s not just a reflection on him; it’s a reflection on them. He’s dangerous, and they’re sad.”

While some women in the Republican Party have come to a similar conclusion, for others, they’re no less loyal than they were in 2016. When you’re star, they let you do it — and they might vote to put you back in the White House.

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