Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Republicans should be worried about Anderson Cooper’s “60 Minutes” interview with the porn actress Stephanie Clifford, who performs as Stormy Daniels, coming days after the CNN anchor interviewed former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
As they listen to the women recount stories of relationships they say they had with the married Donald Trump (affairs which he denies), they may not be able to avoid thinking about what it will mean at the ballot box in November.
In special elections, Republicans have been struggling to retain vacant seats even in solidly red districts, as the Trump effect starts to take a toll. And the potential for women’s votes to determine the outcome of the midterms is immense.
There are many parts of the Daniels story that probably won’t add up to anything more than salacious and disturbing tales from Trump’s private life. The details of his alleged infidelity to Melania and his sexual peccadilloes, as well as the images that might be on the mystery CD or DVD tweeted about by attorney Michael Avenatti, are not likely to move the political needle given that most of the public already has a pretty good sense of who the President is as a person.
If these interviews are really eye-opening to you, then you probably have not been paying attention. Even the evangelical voters who have decided to set aside their principles and give Trump a “mulligan” because of his right-leaning nominations for judgeships never believed that President Trump was an angel.
Most Republicans will remain loyal to the party ticket and are unlikely to see Stormy Daniels as anything more than yet another chapter in the life of the Donald and in media efforts to bash him. The revelations of payoffs in return for the silence of the women, as well as the fears from Trump’s campaign that he might be compromised, could play into Robert Mueller’s investigation, though right now the connections remain tenuous.
But one way that the Daniels story could have a very real political effect is in its ability to further energize the women’s vote, especially that of white college-educated females. From the start of his presidency, Trump has had a gender problem. Hillary Clinton won 54% of the women’s vote. The first mass protest against his presidency, the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, drew hundreds of thousands of women from all over the country.
The president has done nothing to allay the concerns that he is a sexist-in-chief who is dismissive of any policies that aim to achieve gender equity and who is prone to espousing the kind of “locker room talk,” as he called it, that was on display in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that emerged during the election. While many Americans had been hopeful that Clinton’s candidacy would signal a historic milestone in the fight for gender quality, the story turned out differently. The victory of Trump felt to many women like a huge step backward.
In the period that has followed his election, many women voters have only become more determined to reverse the damage that his victory caused. The #Metoo movement pushed the issue of sexual harassment to the front and center of our national conversation. Activists brought down numerous leading figures in key industries and have created immense pressure to transform the rules and norms of workplace behavior.
The anger among women in the electorate could be decisive in the midterm elections. With a record-breaking number of female candidates running for office, many women are clearly determined to shake up Washington.
If women voters who oppose President Trump turn out in large numbers, they can provide the key to electing a Democratic-controlled House and Senate. Ronald Brownstein has noted that 62% of college-educated women are planning to vote for Democrats in November. According to an NBC News/Wall Street poll, the president’s favorability rating among college-educated white women has fallen from 32% to 27%. And the Republicans only receive positive marks from 23% of this pool. In the special elections in Virginia, Alabama, and Pennsylvania, the Republicans performed poorly with women voters.
And the president’s numbers have also fallen among blue-collar white women who were important to his victory last November. In RealClear Politics, David Brady and Brett Parker recently recounted how weak the enthusiasm is for his presidency among female voters, and the widening gender gap between the parties.
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Midterm elections are usually shaped by feelings about the president rather than about his opposition. This is what drives turnout.
To be sure, midterms almost always go poorly for the president’s party – but some years they go really badly. When opponents are highly motivated to turn out on Election day – as Republicans where in 1994 and 2010 and Democrats did in 2006 – and the president’s own party is depressed about its leader, the results can turn into a wave election. Most experts agree that this possibility is very much on the table.
Donald Trump has represented, both symbolically and in terms of the policy agenda, a reactionary presidency toward the feminist movement that has pushed the country toward greater gender equality. The daily tumult in the White House and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation create woes for Trump. But the decisive factor that could put real institutional brakes on this President may well turn out to be the women’s vote.