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Trump hopes a woman Supreme Court nominee will help him with female voters, but the move could backfire

President Trump, at a campaign rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport in North Carolina Saturday.
President Trump, at a campaign rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport in North Carolina Saturday.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

President Trump had just made the major announcement that his nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be a woman, but he left his supporters at a North Carolina rally Saturday night hanging for a bit by adding the word “unless.”

“Wait,” he said. “OK, let’s do a poll.”

Then, as he prepared to quiz the crowd on whether he should pick a woman or a man, Trump pointed to some women who he said had been to his rallies before. “I see them all over the place, they’re great. Anyway, I hope your husbands are OK with it,” he said.

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Trump is confronting a gigantic gender gap, fueled by his policies and his rhetoric, in the presidential race. Women voters prefer Democrat Joe Biden by upwards of 25 percentage points in recent polls. So it’s no surprise that the president has decided to pick a woman to fill the seat of one of the four women to ever serve on the Supreme Court.

But his choice, to be unveiled this week from a list of potential candidates he already had made public, is likely to be strongly conservative and opposed to abortion rights. And that is unlikely to help him gain much, if any, additional support from women voters in November, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“I think if he picks a woman who is very conservative socially and women feel that in fact many of the issues they are concerned about will be at risk, it will not help him with women voters,” she said. “It is that fundamental misunderstanding that, if somehow I just put a woman up there, they’ll forget about all these other issues and they’ll be so mesmerized by my pick.”

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“What it might do,” Walsh continued, “is energize women who are more centrist to come out and to vote in this election against him.”

Former Democratic senator Barbara Boxer of California put it more bluntly.

“Just because you pick someone who has a skirt, it doesn’t change the situation, it only makes it even worse frankly,” she said. “I’ve served with a lot of women who work against women’s rights. It makes it worse for women and women understand that.”

In the 2016 election, Trump’s 11 percentage point gender gap — the difference between the percentage of women and men who voted for him — was tied for the largest of any major party candidate since 1980, according to the center’s data. Since Trump took office, polls have showed his support among women declining because of policies like family separation at the border and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Those come in addition to numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and rhetoric that often is harsh and outdated.

His reference at his Saturday rally to the husbands of some female supporters was similar to a tweet this summer warning “suburban housewives” that Biden would “destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.” Walsh said “tone deaf” comments like that don’t help Trump with women voters.

But Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative public policy organization, said Trump’s comments won’t hurt him with women of faith. And they’ll be energized if Trump nominates a strong conservative woman to the Supreme Court.

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“There’s not a woman in the country who at some point hasn’t been perhaps uncomfortable with one of the president’s tweets, but I don’t think that’s a driving factor on Election Day,” she said.

“It’s not about what he says, it’s about what he does,” Nance continued. “We weren’t looking for a husband or a pastor, but we were really looking for a bodyguard. The president promised that and followed through on his promise and I expect to see broad support for him among women of faith.”

One of the leading women on Trump’s Supreme Court list is Amy Coney Barrett, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. She was a controversial nominee to that post by Trump in 2017 because of her strong Catholic faith and some past comments on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. A 2013 article paraphrased her as saying Roe created “through judicial fiat a framework of abortion on demand" and she has indicated some flexibility on adherence to court precedent.

But at her Senate confirmation hearing in 2017, Barrett said she would “follow all Supreme Court precedent without fail.”

Trump’s first two Supreme Court nominees were men: Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh a year later. On Saturday night, Trump said at the rally that his third pick would be “a very talented, very brilliant woman who I haven’t chosen yet, but we have numerous women on the list.”

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Barrett was not on the first list of 11 potential Supreme Court nominees that Trump made public in May 2016, which had only two women. He’s expanded the list three times since then, including in early September, and it now contains 44 names: 32 men and 12 women.

Biden has promised to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court if elected. But he has not made any list of potential nominees public and said Sunday he would not, despite Trump’s call for him to do so. He noted Trump is the only presidential candidate who ever has released a list of Supreme Court candidates.

“It’s a game to them, a play to gin up emotions and anger,” Biden said. Being on a list could influence how a judge makes decisions and open up the people named to “unrelenting political attacks.”

Walsh said women historically are more likely to vote for Democrats because of their policies and there’s been a gender gap in their favor in every presidential race since 1980. Republicans who pick women for high-profile positions usually aren’t successful in luring more female voters.

She said the best example was Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 in hopes that it would lure some disgruntled women supporters of Hillary Clinton, who lost that year’s Democratic primary, away from Barack Obama. But McCain had the same gender gap in that election as Republican George W. Bush did in 2004, Walsh said.

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“It is not about the gender of the candidate. It is about the party of the candidate largely,” she said.

Nance said there are some “amazing” women on Trump’s list and believes his choice will help him with women voters.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg talked about how important it was to have women on the court," Nance said. “Women are presiding over issues that affect women.”

But Boxer predicted Trump’s nominee won’t help him because her positions won’t align with those of most women voters.

“The names that I’ve seen are people who have zero track record of working for equality across the board. In some ways, it makes it worse for him. Women are not stupid. We understand this,” she said. “You’re not going to pull one over on us.”



Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.