DES MOINES, IOWA - President Donald Trump's campaign is rallying and training a corps of female defenders, mindful that Trump's shaky standing with women could sink his hopes of re-election next year.
Female surrogates and supporters fanned out across important battlegrounds Thursday in a high-profile push to make the president's case on the economy and to train campaign volunteers. Organizers said they believe female backers are often uncomfortable acknowledging they support Trump.
"We want to empower women with other women to be able to share the message of success of this president, to share their success under this president," said Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine, who will be leading one of the events in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The move is a recognition of the president's persistent deficit with women. Over the course of his presidency and across public opinion polls, women have been consistently less supportive of Trump than men. Suburban women in particular rejected Republicans in the 2018 midterm by margins that set off alarms for the party and the president.
The most recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found just 30% of women approve of the way the president is doing his job, compared to 42% of men. Notably, there was no gap between Republican men and women - 80% of both groups said they approved of his job performance in the August poll.
Much of the campaign's appeal to women has so far focused on highlighting economic gains since Trump's election in 2016, a message that is especially vulnerable to a slowdown. That includes frequently pointing to the jobless rate for women, which fell to 3.4% in April - the lowest since 1953, even though it has since crept up to 3.7%.
"You are the cavalry here," Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson told a crowd of supporters at a voter registration training event in Troy, Michigan, a Detroit suburb viewed as key contested territory in this swing state. "There is no president in our lifetime that has done more to advance the interests of women than President Donald J. Trump."
Similar events were scheduled in 13 battleground states, including Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio. The events, led by surrogates including counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, will try to train attendees to be volunteers and what the campaign describes as "ambassadors" for the re-election effort.
Among the women in attendance in Troy was Cara McAlister, a sales representative from the nearby suburb of Bloomfield Township. She said that she always votes but that it was not until Trump's 2016 candidacy that she was inspired to get more involved politically, becoming a GOP precinct delegate and canvassing door to door for him.
She said she has friends who were afraid to reveal their support for Trump because they worried about backlash. So she invites them to meetings like Thursday's gathering.
"They really enjoy being in an atmosphere where they feel free to express their support for the president,'' said McAlister, who was wearing a white "Make America Great Again'' cap and blue Trump-Pence shirt and who described herself as "middle age." "They tend to want to go to another event."
AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters nationwide, found that 40% of women voted for Republicans in last year's congressional elections, compared to 50% of men. In suburban areas in particular, 38% of women and 49% of men voted for Republicans.
Trump has turned off higher-income, college educated and younger women "because of how he speaks, how he tweets," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, while retaining the support of older women and women with lower incomes and without college degrees.
That contrast is evident in Iowa, a state Trump won by more than 9 percentage points in 2016, but one that has historically been seen as a potential swing state.
Some Republican women here, like Des Moines resident Pat Inglis, have become more fervent Trump supporters over the course of his first term.
"He's helped this country more than anybody else in the last 20 years," the 70-year-old retiree said. She added that Democratic attacks against the president, and the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party, have made her all the more enthusiastic to support Trump.
Others, like Mary Miner, a lifelong Republican and small-business owner from rural Iowa, were driven away from the GOP by Trump.
"Trump is horrible," the 61-year-old said. "I'm astonished anyone could support him. If my party is going to support that, I'm done with `em. I'm a Democrat and that's it."
Miner switched parties in 2017 and will be caucusing for Elizabeth Warren next year.
At the same time, said Luntz, recent focus groups show that women have dug in on their views, suggesting there are fewer women open to being persuaded.
"What's happened is it's become more pronounced where those who don't like him are overtly hostile and those who do like him will stand up for him aggressively," Luntz said. "They are even more outspoken than men. They are even more dismissive. It's spoken with attitude and with venom. And I think it's because they take it personally."
As a result, he said, the election is likely to come down to a very narrow demographic - married professional mothers with teenage kids, he says - who credit Trump for a booming economy but are turned off by his style.
"They like what he's done, but they don't like how he's done it," he said. "Do you want to focus on the ingredients, or do you want to focus on the casserole?"