It seemed like a mistake: When President Trump touted women’s gains in the job market during his State of the Union address Tuesday, it sent the contingent of Democratic women to their feet in enthusiastic applause.
Many of those women, after all, had new jobs as a result of a record-smashing midterm election that was widely seen as a rebuke of Trump. And their white attire, in observation of the 100th anniversary of Congress voting to grant women the right to vote, highlighted their celebration even more.
Trump seemed to have unintentionally given them the opening to gloat.
“You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump jokingly told the women.
And then the president went on to praise the women — this time, intentionally: “Exactly one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before.”
Trump isn’t known for applauding Democrats for much of anything. But here, he was applauding Democratic women, who are the reason for that new record. While the number of women in Congress smashed records after the 2018 elections, the number of Republican women fell.
“Congratulations; that’s great,” he said, as the women renewed their loud applause.
Jobs and electoral victories were a couple examples of a theme running through Trump’s State of the Union address: outreach to women.
Beyond job creation and electoral success, Trump announced an initiative to improve conditions for women in developing countries. He also touted the fact that a plan for paid family leave appeared in his budget.
On top of all that, women were central to Trump’s message on immigration, his signature issue. The president stressed that many women attempting to cross into the U.S. illegally get sexually assaulted during the journey. In addition, Trump brought ICE agent Elvin Hernandez, who works to rescue women from sex traffickers, as one of his guests.
The pointed outreach to women may come in part from the president’s awareness that a tough re-election fight is looming — and that getting re-elected might mean having to gain substantial ground with female voters.
Republicans already face a deficit with female voters, who preferred Democratic candidates in 2018 House races by 19 points, helping to create one of the largest gender gaps in that vote in decades. College-educated women in particular appear to be flocking to the Democratic Party. And women disapprove of the president far more than men do — the latest poll from CNN shows that women disapprove of Trump by a roughly 2-to-1 margin. Men, meanwhile, are evenly split. (Other recent polls show similarly large differences between men and women on the president.)
A recent poll from The Washington Post and ABC News showed that on a variety of traits — whether the president is a “strong leader,” whether he has the right “personality and temperament,” whether he “has brought needed change to Washington,” whether he is “good at making political deals” — women are about 20 points less likely than men to view the president favorably. And on the question of how Trump has done on “handling issues of special concern to women,” 44 percent of men said “excellent” or “good,” compared with 23 percent of women.
But then, even while the president may have to win over some unconvinced voters in 2020, he also will have to hold onto his base. Abortion is an issue that excites many conservatives — especially white, self-described evangelicals — and in Tuesday’s speech, Trump appealed to that demographic with sharp criticism of new, controversial abortion measures in Virginia and New York.
However, that issue might also energize Democratic voters — women in particular — in 2020. It’s true that there is little to no gender gap on whether abortion should be legal, as Pew found in 2018 polling. However, women are slightly more likely than men to say abortion is a “critical issue” to them, according to 2018 polling from the Public Religion Research Institute.
In addition, the issue is more important to other major Democratic constituencies — younger Democrats are more likely than younger Republicans to say abortion is important to them, and minority voters are more likely than white voters to say the same.
All of which means that to the extent Trump and other Republicans highlight reproductive rights in 2020, that could end up energizing Democratic-leaning demographic groups.
It’s true that Trump won the election in 2016 with one of the largest gender gaps in modern history (notably, with far more support among white women than nonwhite women). But then the 2018 election showed that female voters were ready to put Democrats into office. Tuesday’s address may have been Trump’s attempt to stop that from happening again.