Gone are the days of the Trump campaign’s boys club.
In the three years since a team of mostly male media executives, policy advisers and fringe political consultants successfully guided the businessman from Manhattan to the White House, his campaign has undergone a dramatic transformation leaving it more organized, more engaged and more female-forward than before.
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Apart from conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway, whom Trump tapped to lead his campaign in August 2016, the only other women in senior roles were communications director Hope Hicks and his daughter-turned-political-adviser, Ivanka Trump. Campaign manager Brad Parscale holds Conway’s old job this time around, but he’s surrounded by more than a dozen women involved at the highest levels of the president’s 2020 campaign — from senior advisers and his national press secretary to the director of coalitions and the head of operations.
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The strategy behind Trump’s sizable female staff is simple: optimize the campaign’s outreach to suburban women — an enormously important voting bloc — by having women oversee the outreach themselves.
“It’s a huge advantage having women on the campaign and women in all stages of life,” said Kayleigh McEnany, national press secretary for Trump’s 2020 operation and one of two senior campaign officials due to give birth to their first child in the next month. “We help bring a varied perspective to the issues in terms of what we prioritize and what the campaign’s general messaging should look like.”
At this stage in the campaign cycle, it may be difficult to see how adding more female staff has been advantageous for Trump — particularly when it comes to courting women who defected from the GOP in 2018.
Recent polling has shown the president’s approval rating as underwater with most female subgroups, among whom support for impeachment has simultaneously increased. For example, 65 percent of suburban women said they disapproved of Trump’s job performance in a recent Fox News poll, along with a slight majority of non-college educated white women — a demographic he captured with 61 percent support in 2016. A separate survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed an 11-point increase since mid-September in support for impeachment among white women without college degrees.
It’s also unclear what the women of the Trump campaign see as the primary cause for the president’s woes with female voters. Asked why their candidate isn’t clicking with suburban women, McEnany said she didn’t “buy the narrative that suburban women … aren’t supporting the president,” while coalitions director Hannah Castillo blamed negative media coverage for preventing Trump’s message from “penetrating” the right communities.
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“That’s a great question,” responded another female campaign official, who then pivoted to claim that women voters are uncomfortable “now that socialism has become a common word in the Democratic party.”
A year out from election day, 13 out of the 26 senior staffers on the Trump 2020 campaign team are women. The campaign says the advantage of having so many women in senior positions is three-fold. For starters, they claim staffers like senior adviser Mercy Schlapp, a former White House official and mother of five, and Lara Trump, the president’s outspoken daughter-in-law and a mother of three, are able to connect more easily with women voters in key battleground states than their male counterparts.
McEnany, who recently participated in a “Women for Trump” event in St. Paul, Minn., said she makes a point of talking to as many women as she can each time she attends one of the president’s campaign rallies.
“And I can’t tell you how many times they nod their heads when I ask, ‘Do you know of women in your neighborhood that privately support this president?’” she said.
Secondly, as one former campaign official put it, “it becomes harder for Democrats to paint President Trump as a giant misogynist if his own campaign is majority women.” The president faces accusations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women, and was infamously caught bragging about kissing and groping women on the “Access Hollywood” tape released weeks before the 2016 election.
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Top women of his campaign say he’s “very respectful” and easy to humanize when they are out on the trail acting as surrogates.
“I know it is the president who seeks the opinion of top women advisers, and who is very respectful to the team of women he works with,” Schlapp said in an interview. “He relies on his women advisers to provide him counsel and that is something I always like to share whenever I go across the country to talk about the president and how he is as a leader.”
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Finally, Schlapp and her female colleagues said they have also helped shape the campaign’s messaging to ensure the top concerns of female voters are addressed. During appearances in Florida, the topic of school choice — which proved to be a key issue in last year’s gubernatorial race — has been weaved into the president’s campaign speeches at the urging of his female advisers. Elsewhere, he has talked up economic gains for women, and focused on his administration’s efforts to lower health care costs, develop nationwide paid family leave and make child care more affordable.
“We’re part of the top-level strategic consulting in this campaign and we’re obviously looking at what the kitchen table issues are that would impact suburban women,” Schlapp said.
Whether or not it’s because of the women on his campaign, Trump has seen female engagement increase in one area that could be indicative of support that hasn’t been captured in recent polling. As POLITICO previously reported, the percentage of campaign contributions coming from female donors increased from roughly a quarter in 2016 to nearly 50 percent during the first three months of this year.
Data compiled by OpenSecrets also found that 46 percent of Trump’s donors were women in the second quarter of 2019, a higher percentage than three of the top four Democratic presidential hopefuls (40 percent of Joe Biden’s donors were female, followed by 39 percent of Bernie Sanders’ and 36 percent of Pete Buttigieg’s). Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the only top-tier candidate whose breakdown of donors included a greater percentage of women than did Trump’s.
Internally, the atmosphere of the Trump campaign has also changed to accommodate its growing number of female staffers. Long nights in a makeshift headquarters at Trump Tower have been replaced with flexible hours from the campaign’s top-dollar Virginia base camp — or from home, depending on individual staffers’ needs. Pre-debate visits to Las Vegas strip clubs have been replaced with daily strategy sessions, where the campaign’s female advisers have a seat at the table.POLITICO NEWSLETTERS
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“They don’t even bat an eye when I say I need to go to my prenatal appointment in Tampa every week,” said McEnany, adding that the campaign has “been so supportive” of her decision to work remotely from Florida in December once she’s given birth.
“I’m from a Mexican-American family, I’m 39 weeks pregnant, 28 years old and I have a senior role on this campaign. I’ve never felt more empowered,” added Castillo, the campaign’s director of coalitions.
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Ironically, the one area where these women said they won’t feel the need to guide the president’s strategy is if he finds himself facing off against a female opponent in the general election — a scenario that has become increasingly likely in recent weeks, amid Warren’s rise to the front of the Democratic primary pack in national polls.
“Common sense and logic will win at the end of the day,” Schlapp responded, when asked about a 2020 contest featuring Trump vs. Warren.
Noting that Trump “ran against a woman already” when he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, Castillo said “he hits back just as hard when people hit him and it doesn’t matter if you’re a man, a woman, black or brown.”
“We don’t just look at gender,” she said.