WESTERVILLE, Ohio – For Donald Trump to win the White House in November, he’ll need the votes of women like lifelong Republican Wendy Emery.
Yet the 52-year-old from the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, is struggling with the idea of voting for her party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
“I’m just disappointed, really disappointed,” she said while standing in her arts and crafts shop. She and her circle of friends are “still in shock” over Trump’s success and wonder who’s voting for him, “because we don’t know any of them.”
Emery’s negative impression of Trump was shared by most of the dozens of white, suburban women from politically important states who were interviewed by The Associated Press this spring. Their views are reflected in opinion polls, such as a recent AP-GfK survey that found 70 percent of women have unfavorable opinions of Trump.
Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign sees that staggering figure as a tantalizing general election opening.
While white voters continue to abandon the Democratic Party, small gains with white women could help put likely nominee Clinton over the top if the November election is close. Democrats believe these women could open up opportunities for Clinton in North Carolina, where President Barack Obama struggled with white voters in his narrow loss in the state 2012, and even in Georgia, a Republican stronghold that Democrats hope to make competitive.
Patty Funderburg of Charlotte, North Carolina, voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, but says she’s already convinced that Trump won’t get her vote.
“He’s not who I’d want to represent our country,” said Funderburg, a 54-year-old mother of three.
Trump insists he’s “going to do great with women.” He’s accused Clinton of playing the “woman’s card” in her bid to become the first female commander in chief. He’s said he will link her aggressively to past indiscretions with women by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
The businessman also has previewed an argument focused on national security, with echoes of the pitch that President George W. Bush successfully made to white suburban women during his 2004 re-election.
“Women want, above all else, they want security,” Trump told The Associated Press recently. “They want to have a strong military, they want to have strong borders. They don’t want crime.” He said “Hillary is viewed poorly on that.”
Not so in the AP-GfK poll. About 40 percent of women surveyed said Clinton would be best at protecting the country and handling the threat posed by the Islamic State group, and about 30 percent said Trump.
Throughout the primary, Clinton has talked about policies meant to appeal to women: equal pay, expanded child care, paid family and medical leave and more.
And Trump has his own complicated past regarding women and has faced criticism for his actions both in his personal life and at his businesses toward them. He’s vigorously defended his treatment of women, as has his daughter Ivanka Trump, who said her father “has total respect for women.”
A super political action committee backing Clinton has released its first television advertisements featuring Trump’s contentious statements about women.
“Does Donald Trump really speak for you?” the super PAC ad asks.
For many of the women interviewed, the answer appears to be no.
“He’s just a jerk,” said Elizabeth Andrus, a registered Republican in Delaware, Ohio, who says she voted twice for Obama. She praised Trump’s political skills and argued his business career indicates an intellect and ability that could benefit the nation.
But his temperament, she said, is somewhere between “buffoonery” and “complete narcissism.”
“It would be like having Putin for president,” she added, referring to Russia’s sometimes belligerent president, Vladimir Putin.
Erin Freedman, a 38-year-old from Reston, Virginia, said Trump “scares the crap out of me.” While she’s an enthusiastic backer of Clinton’s primary rival, Bernie Sanders, she said she’d have no problem backing the former secretary of state against Trump in a general election.
Even some reluctant Trump supporters say they want him to dial back the braggadocio and caustic insults, and engage people more seriously.
“He’s the nominee, so I’ll vote for him,” said Renee Herman, a 45-year-old from Sunbury, Ohio, who preferred retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and her home-state governor, John Kasich, in the GOP primary field. “But it’s time we get past all this showmanship and hear from him what he actually wants to do and his plans for how to do it.”
Trump’s best opening is that Clinton, who is on the cusp of clinching her party’s nomination, would enter the November race with a majority of Americans taking a dim view of her candidacy. Fifty-five percent have a negative view of Clinton, including 53 percent of women, in the AP-GfK poll.
“Anybody but Hillary,” said Carolyn Owen, a 64-year-old educator from Clayton, North Carolina, near Raleigh. She said Trump wasn’t her first choice, “but it’s better than the alternative.”
While Obama won the support of women overall in his two White House campaigns, white women have increasingly been shifting toward the Republican Party in recent elections. Obama only won 42 percent of white women in 2012. Romney won 56 percent of white women, more than Bush and the party’s 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain.
Clinton’s hopes will largely hinge on replicating Obama’s coalition of blacks, Hispanics and young people. In both of his elections, Obama earned near-unanimous support from black women, while drawing the votes of roughly 7 in 10 Hispanic women. But she would have more room for error with those groups if she can increase Democrats’ share of white women.
Another potentially favorable scenario for Clinton involves Republican and independent women who can’t stomach a vote for Trump but also don’t want to vote for a Democrat. Maybe they simply stay home, keeping the GOP nominee’s vote totals down.
For Angee Stephens of Indianola, Iowa, that seems to be the only option at this point. She’s wary of Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, which is the subject of an FBI investigation, and her past political decisions. But “Trump sort of scares me,” Stephens said.
In Georgia, Trump supporter Sue Everhart said she talks regularly with suburban Republican women struggling with whether to vote for Trump, and said some cite his boorishness. The former state party chairwoman said she tries to bring the conversation back to Clinton and remind Republicans “who we are running against.”
As for Trump’s penchant for controversial statements about women, Everhart said, “I learned a long time ago that most any man over 50 in this party, they like you as long as you’re making the cookies.”
“I should probably be offended,” she added. “But I’m not.”
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