KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. — Last week, one month before she was set to give birth to her second child, Lara Trump came here to kick off the 2020 Women for Trump coalition, planting a flag, or at least an olive branch, in some of the least Trump-friendly terrain in the Keystone State: suburban Philadelphia.
Poised, witty and sharply on message, President Trump's daughter-in-law is a natural in a position she says is far removed from her modest upbringing. "I grew up in a middle-class family in North Carolina, and I couldn't have ever imagined that I would be a part of anything like this," she told me.
Her job is both simple and complicated: keeping the old female voters and persuading the new ones for her father-in-law, who, to be frank, has a woman problem. The foundation of his base has been and continues to be men, explained Jeff Brauer, political science professor at Keystone College. "Particularly married men, who voted for Trump nearly 20 points higher than Clinton in 2016," he said. "To be accurate though, it is not just a Trump problem. Single women, who make up almost half of the women in the country, tend to be strongly Democratic. In 2016, Clinton won unmarried women by almost 30 points."
Single men also went to Hillary Clinton but by a tiny 2-point margin.
"So the real key is married women. They will decide the next presidency," said Brauer.
Lara Trump says her biggest challenge isn't retaining the women who voted for her father-in-law in 2016; instead, it's winning the votes of women who didn't vote for him but now find they like his policies while disliking his comportment.
"I think there are a lot of people, men and women alike, who feel that way out there," she said. "The reality is that you don't have to love everything about this president, but you sure can love the direction that he's taking this country." She rattled off his policies, from tax cuts to national security. She landed on the age-old question "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
"You might not love everything he tweets, but you never have to wonder what this president is thinking. He's very transparent," she said, days after critics and supporters alike cringed at a tweet he lobbed at the "squad" of new Democratic congresswomen.
"I think because he is unconventional, he's been incredibly effective," she said. "You don't have to follow all of the old rules in Washington, D.C. He's beholden only to the American people, not to lobbyists, not to special interest groups."
The campaign's decision to kick off Women for Trump in Montgomery County, a suburban Philly county that supported Clinton in 2016, was no accident. It plans to make inroads with married suburban women, because it has to to win reelection in 2020.
For two decades, married women have gravitated toward Republican presidential candidates.
In fact, Republican candidates have won the married women vote since 1996, said Brauer: "In 2012, Romney beat Obama with this demographic 53% to 46%. However, this trend changed in 2016. Clinton was able to edge out Trump with married women 49% to 47% — still a decent showing for Trump running against the first woman major candidate."
Brauer said evidence of Trump's suburban-women voter problem emerged in the results of last year's midterm elections and in part comes from his uncensored use of Twitter. "Some of this erosion is due to his brash comments about and to prominent women and racial minorities, and some is due to his policy stances, such as his efforts to repeal health care reforms and the treatment of migrant families on the border," he said.
Given all that, it is a smart and critical initiative for the Trump team to begin specifically courting women's votes, especially in places like suburban Philadelphia. And Lara Trump's visit was the beginning of the initiative, said Brauer.
"These suburbs have a strong demographic of married women who tend to vote Republican but are willing to vote Democratic for the right candidates. So their votes must be earned," said Brauer.
The strongest message for married women is probably an economic one: This demographic knows firsthand the struggles of maintaining a career and raising a family, especially to give their children more opportunities than they had.
"The message should be all about the booming economy, especially low unemployment/high job opportunities, increasing wages/salaries, tax cuts and the ability to retire with the growth of 401(k)s," said Brauer. "They need to be convinced their families and children will have a better economic life with a second Trump term."
If the Trump team can successfully make that argument, then perhaps these women will overlook the president's foibles and their disparities with him, said Brauer. "It is an effort worth undertaking."
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