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ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Juliann Bortz wants to apologize for something she did a few years ago.
The 71-year-old resident of the battleground state of Pennsylvania, a registered Democrat, voted for Donald Trump.
It wasn’t that she was unhappy with former President Barack Obama: She voted for him, too. Bortz, who lives in the Lehigh Valley, a swing area, thought a “new approach, a business approach” couldn’t hurt when she cast a ballot for Trump.
“I was wrong. Boy was I wrong,” said Bortz, who is white. Her change of heart is due to the “lies,” the “division” and Trump’s attacks on veterans. And she said there are friends and neighbors just like her — Democrats who voted Republican in 2016 but are now flipping back.
“We were joking about forming a group, like the, 'We're so sorry, group,’” she said.
Bortz isn’t alone: Women in Pennsylvania and across the country are leaving Trump behind, including the white women who helped power his victory four years ago, according to polling in key states. White women with college degrees in Pennsylvania are especially done with him, rejecting him at even higher rates than they did in 2016. And while Trump is still winning white women without college degrees in the state, he’s doing so by a much smaller margin than in 2016.
In a place like Pennsylvania — a state Trump won by only 44,000 votes in 2016 and which is now widely considered the tipping-point state in the Electoral College — those margins matter. Joe Biden is beating Trump by a polling average of 6.7 points in the state, according to FiveThirtyEight. And white women are a major part of the reason.
Aware of the threat to his reelection bid with 15 days to go, Trump made a direct appeal to women in Pennsylvania last week, baffled by their apparent aversion to him.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump bellowed into a crowd in Johnstown, a small city east of Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “Please. I saved your damn neighborhood, okay?”
But white suburban women aren’t answering Trump’s plea. In 2016, Trump won white women in the state by 50 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent, according to exit polls. Now, Biden is ahead by as much as 23 points with white women, according to a Quinnipiac survey from earlier this month. A Washington Post/ABC poll of Pennsylvania voters in September showed a similar lead, with white women preferring Biden by 13 points. Among suburban women overall, he’s ahead by 18 points.
In a Monmouth poll from late September to October, Biden led among Pennsylvania women overall by 26 points — and the large spread is also due Biden’s overwhelming support among Black and brown women. Across polls when women are asked whom they trust more to handle the coronavirus pandemic, they also pick Biden, in most cases by double digits.
The numbers present a serious dilemma for Trump. Trump’s campaign has tried to grow his margins with Black and Latino men, but there are only so many of those voters in the majority-white Pennsylvania — and most favor his opponent.
It leaves the president with two options: Either find a way to ramp up turnout among working-class white voters in the state, specifically white men. Or turn things around with the white women who helped propel him to the White House four years ago. In interviews with voters and party officials throughout the state, however, it's clear the outlook is bleak for Trump. The same women who put him in the White House four years ago appear to now be on track to oust him.
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who frequently conducts focus groups with people who voted for Trump in 2016, said the president is running out of time.
“The bottom is falling out for Trump with women and with college-educated voters in the suburbs,” said Longwell, founder of the political group Republican Voters Against Trump, referring to white voters. “The only way he can win with numbers like that with women is if there's this massive surge of white working-class men in some of these key swing states.”
White men are still mostly with Trump in the Keystone state, backing him by anywhere from 14 to 20 points, according to public polling. Bortz’s household is an example of the gender divide reflected in polls: Her husband supports the president. But across nearly every other demographic, including white women without a college degree, Trump is slipping.
Trump won that voting bloc by 20 points in 2016, according to exit polls. Recent surveys show him now winning the group only by 5 to 10 percentage points.
On the same night Trump insisted suburban women should like him more than anybody else in attendance at his rally, Longwell conducted a focus group with seven white women who had voted for the president in 2016. Not a single one said they were planning to — or even leaning toward — voting for Trump again.
This group of non-college-educated women were from the swing states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin. Two out of the three from Pennsylvania said they were tipping toward Biden, though one of them said voting third-party was an option. The third said she was leaning toward voting third-party. All women in the group, including those from Pennsylvania, had negative things to say about Trump.
“We look to a president to help us. We voted for him. He's divided us more,” said one.
“Donald Trump’s supposed to be a leader and there’s no leadership in that administration at all,” said another from Pennsylvania.
Gloria Lee Snover, chair of Pennsylvania’s Northampton County Republican Party, said there are many women — mainly blue-collar or business owners — who support Trump in her county, which flipped from supporting Obama to Trump in 2016.
But “there is” a gender gap in the state, she acknowledged, particularly when it comes to suburban white women.
“When I look on Facebook, the women that support Biden are a lot of middle-aged suburban white women who are talking about Covid constantly and their fear of it,” she said. “I’ll be honest: They’re obsessed with Covid. Most of them I know are really into Covid. They think the world’s ending with Covid. They’re in their house with Covid. They’re worried about Covid.”
Despite his struggles in the state, Trump has not visited Northampton County, a key swing region: “We’re kind of a red-headed stepchild to them. I kind of don’t really like it,” said Snover.
GOP activists and strategists in Pennsylvania said they’ve tried for months to get Trump to switch gears and campaign predominantly on his management of the economy to win over suburban white women. But he hasn’t taken their advice, instead lurching from criticizing Biden’s son Hunter to retweeting conspiracy theories to airing his grievances at rallies.
Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican consultant in the state, said it’s difficult for Trump to find a path to victory if he can’t win back some of the suburban white women in Pennsylvania who supported him in 2016. Even if the president tries to counter their departure by driving up voter turnout in his strongholds, Nicholas said, it may not be enough.
“I don’t think the math adds up for that,” he said, adding that as Republicans “do better with exurban and rural non-college women and worse with those college-educated women in the suburbs, there’s more of the latter than the former. So in the war of attrition, we’re on the wrong side of the equation.”
However, he suggested, there might be a narrow way forward for Trump: “North-Central Pennsylvania is where I would be pushing for more people.”
Trump’s campaign said the president has a “wider pathway” in the state than in 2016, but didn’t provide its internal data.
Their data “does not support the idea” that white women are “squarely behind Biden,” said Nick Trainer, director of battleground strategy for Trump’s campaign. “It says this group of voters is in the same scenario as 2016 in that they’re undecided right now.”
The Trump team also wouldn't say how many undecided voters were reflected in the data. But a campaign adviser said Trump’s largest place to grow in Pennsylvania is among non-college-educated white men. “They're the largest nonparticipant group in the country,” the adviser said.
Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat whose Lehigh Valley district flipped blue in 2018, is optimistic Biden will do well in the swing Northampton County, which she represents. “The power of the vote this year is going to be driven primarily by women,” said Wild. “It used to be back in my parents' day that women voted for whoever their husband told them to. We're way, way past that. And they're making their own decisions about who they're gonna vote for, and perhaps they are the influencers in their family, not the other way around.”
Both campaigns are blanketing Pennsylvania and making explicit appeals to women voters of all races. The two candidates themselves, Lara Trump, Jill Biden, Mike Pence and other surrogates have visited the state in the past two weeks.
Almost two weeks ago Jill Biden made the rounds in the Philadelphia suburbs, an area where a racially diverse group of suburban women helped propel Democratic victories in the House in 2018 and flip local governments a year later. The Philly suburbs are overwhelmingly white but are increasingly diversifying.
One campaign stop, a socially distanced “Women for Biden” event in Swarthmore, captured the increasingly powerful role of the voting bloc in the Democratic Party. Held in the backyard of Delaware County Democratic Party Chair Colleen Guiney, the predominantly white crowd included women elected to Congress and the state legislature in the 2018 midterms as well as other female community leaders.
“We have ward leaders, we have doctors, we have nurses, we have school superintendents,” said Rep. Mary Scanlon while introducing Jill Biden. “This is the most passionate, organized, effective group of women that you will probably find anywhere in the United States.”
Jill Biden’s speech to a few dozen attendees was centered on a major plank of her husband’s campaign: Trump’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. She also talked about her own experiences with motherhood.
“I’m sure all of you are saying to yourselves, ‘How do I keep my family safe from this pandemic?’” she said. “‘Will I be able to see my grandkids soon? What if a shooting happens at our school? What if I lose my job? And how do I tell my kids to be kind when our leaders don't live up to the same standard?’”
Susan Jacobson, a Biden volunteer at the event, said she's counting on suburban women who voted for Trump to come through for Democrats this time: “That’s what we’re hoping: that all of the women here in the suburbs who might have made some misguided decisions four years ago are all of a sudden getting religion.”
On the same day, in the Trump-friendly western town of New Castle, Lara Trump, a campaign adviser and Trump’s daughter-in-law, held a “Women for Trump” event alongside fellow campaign advisers Mercedes Schlapp and Katrina Pierson.
Held outside with little social distancing and minimal mask-wearing, the jazzed-up, mostly white and female crowd sat shoulder to shoulder.
As the women trickled into the seating area, they told POLITICO they weren’t fazed by Trump contracting the coronavirus — “It would have happened sooner or later” — and they didn’t believe the polls.
Carol Rich, 71, said in the final stretch Trump should personalize his experience contracting the coronavirus.
“He's a narcissist, he's a success because of that. You don't become a success when you're a wimp,” she said. But if he spoke at a more personal level, she said, maybe he could win back some voters.
Sitting in front of a bright pink coach bus, the three Trump advisers delivered what resembled comedic routines on everything from Biden’s age, to “media meltdowns,” to false claims of mass voter fraud.
“Donald Trump on Nov. 3 has to win by such an overwhelming margin of victory, it doesn't matter how many dead cats they have voting,” said Lara Trump, referring to a report of a family in Georgia who received a voter registration application from an unidentified third-party group for their dead cat.
And when the routine veered onto the prior night’s vice presidential debate, the Trump surrogates elicited laughs from the mostly female crowd by mocking the correct pronunciation of a female senator’s name.
"Kuh-mah-la had an interesting moment,” said Schlapp.
"You have to say her name right, Mercedes," Lara Trump said.
“I can't get it. Comma-lahh?” Schlapp said, exaggerating her bafflement.
“I don’t know.”