More than 100,000 people poured into a brand new stadium for a “Namaste Trump” event in India.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – As many Iowans hunkered down for a massive snowstorm in early January, Lara Trump convened a “MAGA Mommy” roundtable with a group of women at a local library.
Tucked in a conference room plastered with “Women for Trump” signs, the president’s daughter-in-law discussed the high costs of child care, the economy and what she sees as the danger of a Democrat in the White House. Then she posed some questions.
“How have your lives changed – have you seen anything change – since Donald Trump took office?” Trump asked the women, some of whom looked on while their children colored at a conference table. “Is there anything we can take back to him that you would like to see happen that hasn’t happened already?”
During the half-hour discussion, the mothers opened up about balancing life as a working mom while Trump described raising her own two children, 5-month-old Carolina and 2-year-old Luke. By the end of the event, she moved through the conversation with each mom,reminding them that president’s policies matter more than his style.
Lara Trump, 37, wife of the president’s son Eric, has emerged as a top campaign adviser, focusing heavily on female voters. Polls have consistently shown women are less supportive than men of Trump. In the 2018 midterms, suburban women rejected the GOP in large numbers, raising fears in the party that a similar gender gap could play out in the November presidential election.
Through the “Women for Trump” initiative spearheaded by Lara Trump, the campaign is trying to energize the president’s female supporters and make inroads with women who like some aspects of Trump’s presidency but dislike others.
“Whether you don’t like everything he says, or the way he says it, or his hair or whatever it is, you can’t argue that what he’s done hasn’t worked in this country,” she told USA TODAY while crisscrossing Iowa on a bus tour.
Trump ‘Hidden Trump vote’
Working with other officials on the campaign, the president’s daughter-in-law is looking to turn out the “hidden Trump vote,” a concept promoted in 2016 by White House senior adviser and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who argued that Trump has support among some women who are reluctant to say so publicly.
“Whenever you’re talking about Donald Trump, I think now even more so than in 2016 people are really afraid sometimes to voice their support,” Lara Trump said.
“And I think women for some reason, women feel like maybe – and they should have the loudest voice – but maybe they can’t speak out.”
Trump added that she takes “polls with a grain of salt” because they have “never reflected the true sentiments of the people whenever you’re talking about Donald Trump.”
The 2016 election saw the largest gender gap in 36 years of exit polling, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. During his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump faced a string of controversies over his comments and behavior toward women, including his remarks on an “Access Hollywood” tape in which he was heard bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. Trump later said he regretted the comments and called them “locker room” talk.
Trump Personal attacks, language a concern for women
Exit polls from the 2016 election showed that 53% of men backed Trump, while only 42% of women supported him – a gap of 11 percentage points.
According to a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll this month, more than half of suburban women, 54%, believe a Democratic nominee would be better for the country than Trump. Just 48% of suburban men held that view.
Nearly 60% of suburban women in the poll viewed Trump’s character negatively, compared with 21% of those who admire him.
“A range of issues are at play here, but some of it has to do with his language, his discourse and the name-calling,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the women and politics center.
USA TODAY/Ipsos poll:For voters, Bernie Sanders outranks other Democrats – and Trump – on values, empathy
In fact, the poll, conducted Feb. 12-13, found respondents consistently gave Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is leading the 2020 Democratic field, higher marks than any candidate – including Trump – on values and empathy. In the survey, 40% said they admired Sanders’ character, well above the 26% who said they admired Trump.
On the flip side of that, many Republicans and some Democrats believe that on the economy, Sanders would be a weak candidate to run against Trump, especially in the suburbs. The Vermont senator is a self-described democratic socialist, and many suburban voters are wary of big government.
Lara Trump has hit the road with national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, second lady Karen Pence and other top female campaign officials to court female voters. The group often points out that women make up half of the campaign, and three of the women – including Trump and McEnany – have given birth over the past year.
The Wilmington, N.C., native has held “Women for Trump” events in suburban areas across the Rust Belt, often arriving ahead of the president’s campaign rallies, which typically draw a more raucous crowd.
Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster who is advising Joe Biden’s campaign, said Trump’s penchant for personal attacks has turned off many women.
“About half of swing women think he could tweet us into a war,” said Lake, who co-wrote the book “What Women Really Want” with Kellyanne Conway.
The USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found slightly more suburban women opposed Trump’s economic and employment policies than approved of them, 40% to 36% and 39% to 35%, respectively.
But on average, the proportion of suburban women who opposed Trump’s policies on child care, health care and education was 24 percentage points higher than the proportion who said they supported them.
Lara Trump emphasizes the unemployment rate of 3.6 percent – a nearly 50-year low — and stock market gains to argue the economy is working for working for women. Women have replaced men as the majority of jobholders, and participation for prime-age women has hit a record 19-year high, according to Labor Department data released this month.
Trump Life on the campaign trail
Lara Trump, described by friends as “wickedly funny” and “a great storyteller,” engages her audiences with tales about life on the campaign trail. Of the Russia investigation that shadowed the first half of Trump’s presidency, she jokes that the campaign couldn’t collude with Iowa, let alone the Kremlin. She invokes an analogy coined by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale to describe the early days of the president’s 2016 operation: It was like building a plane while flying it at the same time.
“We didn’t have a solid campaign structure. We didn’t really know if Donald Trump will be the nominee until a lot later on,” she said. “Now, we’re such a well-oiled machine.”
Trump first moved to New York City to become a pastry chef, attending the French Culinary Institute. She dated Eric Trump for six years before the pair were married at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Fla.
She worked as a producer on “Inside Edition” for five years. With an eye for television, she honed her on-camera persona by hosting Trump’s weekly news webcast “Real News Update” and in frequent appearances on Fox News. Lara Trump recalled when she first scored the president’s approval for her television skills.
“I don’t know that he knew I was such a fighter before and I think he saw me on TV a couple of times, and I remember him calling me and saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea that you could do that,’” she said.
Her rise on the airwaves and at campaign events hasn’t been lost on some members of the Republican Party. A poll last year by conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth examining a hypothetical GOP primary for the Long Island seat being vacated by Rep. Peter King had Lara Trump winning by more than 30 points. She doesn’t live in King’s congressional district and has said she’s focused on one campaign in November for now.
“She’s extremely disciplined when it comes to just about anything,” said Emily Aronson, a former “Inside Edition” colleague and friend who is running with Trump in their fifth triathlon in March.
She rises around 5 a.m. every day to train – earlier if she’s catching a morning flight – and schedules dinners after 7:30 p.m. so she can be home to tuck her children in before bedtime, Aronson said.
Unlike her brother-in-law, Donald Trump Jr., Lara Trump shies away from clashing with the left on social media. Her Twitter page is a blend of retweets of her family’s missives, animal welfare and promotion of the president’s economic record.
On Twitter, Lara Trump is more likely to mention the words “employment” and “job” than other family members, according to an analysis of nearly 4,500 tweets from family surrogates that shows how each of them target specific audiences. By contrast, Donald Trump Jr. focuses heavily on Trump’s foes, using the word “Biden” in 8% of the tweets and often slamming the “media.”
But Lara Trump is not without her own controversial edge. During the Iowa bus tour, she made headlines for taking a shot at Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, saying she felt bad for him.
“I’m supposed to want him to fail and every turn, but every time he comes on stage, and they turned to him, I’m like, ‘Joe, can you get it out? Let’s get the words out, Joe.’ You kind of feel bad for him.”
The comments were viewed as insensitive to people with speech impediments, because the former vice president has publicly spoken about overcoming a childhood stutter. The incident prompted retired airline captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, best known for crash-landing a commercial jet on the Hudson River in New York, to write an op-ed about his own struggle with a stutter.
At the “MAGA Mommy” event and later that day at a luncheon, Lara Trump accused the media of mischaracterizing her comments, noting she never mentioned the word “stutter.”
When asked what led her to dive so deeply into the fray of campaign politics, Lara Trump talks of being tasked with delivering North Carolina while filling with her father-in-law to the battleground state in 2016.
“I voted in elections – probably like a lot of people – but I didn’t really pay that much attention to politics. But there was something that happened in 2016, and I think people were reawakened in this country,” she told USA TODAY. “Whether you like him or not, he really reinvigorated politics in America.”
Trump Election night chat with Trump
On election night when North Carolina was called for her father-in-law, Lara Trump said he pointed to her.
“I think it took her credibility and maybe their relationship to another level,” said Lynne Patton, a friend and former campaign official who now works at the Department of House and Urban Development. “He recognized the significant role she played in that victory.”
Lara Trump, who often boasts about her two beagles, Ben and Charlie, has taken on animal rights as one of her signature causes. Friends point to her work championing the president to sign a bill into law to stop people from sharing footage of animal abuse.
“She has a really big heart, and I think that shows,” Aronson said. “A lot of people want to hate the Trumps. A lot of people do hate the Trumps. But anyone who spends time with her wouldn’t hate her.”
But whether her appeal will be enough to persuade female voters to keep Trump in office is less clear.
In the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, among those who identified as Republicans, 88% said they supported Trump’s economic policies, reaffirming the campaign’s strategy of highlighting the president’s jobs record.
But the same group was two to four times more likely not to have an opinion or not know what the president’s policies are regarding childcare, health care and education, three key issues among female voters.
Still, Lara Trump remains resolved about her task ahead of Nov. 3.
“I think when women are in a voting booth and no one is looking, they know that this president is looking out for them. They know that his policies are working. They feel it every single day,” she told USA TODAY.
“So I think it’s up to us to remind people of that, but also I think when no one is around and no one is pressuring them … they’re going to vote for Donald Trump.”
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