WASHINGTON — In one of the first clashes of the Republican primaries, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP field, was asked about Donald Trump’s put-down of her looks.
Fiorina did not call out Trump’s overt sexism. Political experts say she didn’t need to.
She responded coolly instead: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
A year later, it appears Fiorina’s words were prophetic, as Democrat Hillary Clinton has opened up a 16-point lead with women, a record gender gap. Polls show Trump faces a potentially decisive gender gap across all demographic groups, particularly among unmarried women.
Democrats have won the female vote in almost every national election of the past three decades, but the divide in the 2016 presidential election could be historic — and not just because Clinton is the first woman to top the ticket of a major U.S. political party.
Pitted against Clinton is a Republican nominee whose bellicose pronouncements on refugees, trade, immigration and national security have endeared him to a white male demographic yearning for a strong, virile leader. Trump, according to former advisor Corey Lewandowski, dominates that group by an 18-point margin, surpassing Clinton’s lead with women.
In the matchup between the potential first “Madam President” and the undisputed Alpha Male of the Republican Party, some observers see a gender gap on steroids.
“Hillary Clinton is obviously the first woman running, but Donald Trump is an exaggeration, almost a caricature, of a certain kind of white male performance that you see at the presidential level,” said cultural theorist Jackson Katz.
Katz, author of the recently published book, “Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity,” argues that the gender gap has less to do with women than with men.
Appeals to strong leadership are hardly new in politics, but Katz sees Trump’s “politically incorrect” populism as a refinement on an old formula. “It’s not a new strategy, but Trump himself is so over the top in his performance of pugilistic manhood that he’s re-writing the story of how you appeal to white male voters.”
In a battle of opposites, Clinton and her surrogates sometimes have employed explicit gender-based appeals, not always to good effect. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was pilloried — particularly among millennials — for her suggestion that “there’s a special place in hell” for women who don’t help other women.
At the same time, Katz detects a “man card” at play, particularly in the way Trump emasculated some of his top GOP rivals – calling former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush “low energy,” and referring to Sen. Marco Rubio as “Little Marco.”
One exchange saw Trump holding up his hands during a nationally televised debate. “He referred to my hands, if they’re small, something else must be small,” Trump said. “I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”
That is not to say that Trump’s appeals to unapologetic masculinity have no appeal to women, particularly conservatives.
“I see him as a newly-hired CEO who is coming in to save the corporation from bankruptcy,” said Karen Cuneo Newton, vice president for finance on the executive committee of the Texas Federation of Republican Women.
Despite the Clinton campaign’s emphasis on equal pay for women, child-care and family leave policies, Newton believes that women’s top issues are the same as those for men.
“I’m worried about national security, especially after what happened in New York and New Jersey,” Newton said, referring to the recent terror bomb incidents. “The economy worries me a lot. I worry about the middle class … But as far as women’s issues that Democrats are constantly talking about, you know, look at me from the waist up.”
Explanations for the unparalleled gender gap are varied, but many are rooted in evolving notions of feminism.
“I would say that women’s issues are economic issues, and there is no such thing as just straight-up women’s issues anymore,” said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, a group that supports Democratic women.
Nonetheless, Emily’s List champions Clinton as a “ceiling-breaker” representing a breakthrough for women, now estimated at 53 percent of voters.
“We have been building the foundation for this moment for 30 years,” Stech said. “But equally as exciting as electing the first woman president is the idea of electing someone who understands the issues that impact women so deeply.”
In Trump, Democratic women see the antithesis of a level playing field. They point to his history of disparaging remarks about the physical attributes of celebrity women, such as criticizing Kim Kardashian for what he called her “fat ass.”
Better known was an incident on The View in 2006 – which went viral on social media this year – in which Trump said he would “be dating” Ivanka Trump if she were not his daughter.
In response to the negative reaction, a Trump spokesman issued a statement saying the reality TV star was “absolutely joking” and “making fun of himself for his tendency to date younger women.”
Some of his insults of women on the campaign trail have done more damage. He notably retweeted a post that mocked Heidi Cruz, the wife of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the GOP runner-up, with an unflattering photo, juxtaposing the image next to one of his own wife, Melania Trump, a former fashion model who has posed nude.
More subtle have been Trump’s remarks, even before Clinton’s bout with pneumonia, questioning her “strength or stamina.” Democrats also saw more than a hint of sexism in his remark that “I just don’t think she has a presidential look.”
“When he says that, he’s absolutely taking a dig at the fact that we’ve just never seen a woman president before,” Stech said. “The message that he’s sending to women is absolutely backwards and out of line.”
Some conservative strategists also see Trump’s comments as a setback — if not for women, then for the Republican Party, which has been trying to close a persistent gender gap averaging 8 percent since 1980.
“Estimates suggest we’re going to have an unprecedented gender gap,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, which advocates for center-right Republican issues. “It is rather concerning, but also disappointing when you think about all the progress Republicans have made during the (2014) midterm elections, which shrunk the gender gap to five points, which is significant.”
As for the Trump effect, Schaeffer said, “Republicans do not have a candidate that is widely appealing to women.”
Schaeffer has sought to reframe so-called women’s issues in free-market terms, such as tax incentives for family leave instead of government mandates.
That message has been clouded by Trump’s high-profile scrapes. “We are in an election this year where personality trump’s policy, no pun intended,” Schaeffer said.
Among those credited with toning down Trump’s persona in recent weeks is Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who was touted as an “expert on female consumers and voters” when she was brought on to the Republican’s campaign in July.
Conway, who previously backed Cruz, is well known for her view that the classic feminism of the baby boom generation is “out of vogue.”
“Femininity is replacing feminism as a leading attribute for American women,” Conway said at a Conservative Women’s Network gathering in 2011. Her prescription for closing the gender gap: “You’ve got to give women the four magic M’s — marriage, motherhood, mortgages and mutual funds.”
While Conway eschews identity politics, she acknowledges that female politicians like Clinton and Sarah Palin have fallen victim to a double-standard in public life that focuses on looks.
Conway also sees a double-standard for Trump, telling MSNBC last month that Trump’s attacks in Clinton pale compared to the Democrats’ narrative of the GOP nominee as temperamentally unfit to be president: “Somehow it’s OK for them to insult this guy six ways to Sunday, every chance they get, and if he shoots back with one comment, it’s ‘Ah, look at him, he’s attacking a woman, he’s taking on her health.’”