By MICHAEL BARBARO and AMY CHOZICK
AUG. 9, 2016
Photo: April Whisenant at a Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C., on Tuesday. Mr. Trump’s provocative remarks about women are eating away at a crucial part of his support. Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times
Of all the tribulations facing Donald J. Trump, perhaps none is stirring as much anxiety inside his campaign as the precipitous decline of support from Republican women, an electoral cornerstone for the party’s past nominees that is starting to crumble.
In a striking series of defections, high-profile Republican women are abandoning decades of party loyalty and vowing to oppose Mr. Trump, calling him emotionally unfit for the presidency and a menace to national security.
But even more powerfully, his support from regular Republican women is falling after Mr. Trump’s provocative remarks about everything from the silence of the mother of a slain Muslim soldier to how women should respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.
“For people like me, who are Republican but reasonable and still have our brains attached, it’s hard to see Trump as a reasonable, sane Republican,” said Dina Vela, a project manager in San Antonio who said she had always voted Republican and remained wary of Hillary Clinton. But to her own surprise, she has started visiting Mrs. Clinton’s campaign website and plans to vote for her.
Since the two parties held their nominating conventions, Mr. Trump’s lead over Mrs. Clinton with Republican women voters has declined by 13 percentage points, according to polls conducted by The New York Times and CBS News.
In late July, 72 percent of Republican women said they would vote for Mr. Trump, a healthy majority, but far below the level won by the past three Republican presidential nominees. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 93 percent of Republican women. In 2008, John McCain won 89 percent, and four years earlier, George W. Bush won 93 percent.
In politically moderate swing states like Pennsylvania, which aides to Mr. Trump say are crucial to his victory, Mr. Trump’s standing with women over all is perilously low among registered voters: Just 27 percent of women back him, compared with 58 percent for Mrs. Clinton, according to a poll by Franklin & Marshall College.
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Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that Mr. Trump’s divisive and combative tactics, which seem to have intensified since he secured the Republican nomination, were amplified in the eyes and ears of the nation’s female voters.
In an interview on Tuesday, Ms. Walsh cited a controversy Mr. Trump had set off just moments before, when he seemed to suggest that gun owners who care about the Second Amendment take action against Mrs. Clinton if she is elected. Democrats immediately denounced his remarks as a reckless invitation to his supporters to commit violence.
“That kind of rhetoric is inflammatory, and I think we are seeing that women in particular have a real problem with it,” Ms. Walsh said.
Alarm over Mr. Trump’s temperament crosses demographic lines. But decades of social science research about gender and politics suggests that women have a unique perspective on government and its leaders that frequently diverges from men’s — a view, Ms. Walsh said, grounded in their longer life expectancy, their lower pay and their expectation that government will play a meaningful role in their lives.
This dynamic, she said, is reflected in the number of women who vote. Four years ago, about 10 million more women voted than men, the Rutgers center found.
For Mrs. Clinton, the alienation of Republican women from Mr. Trump creates a rare opportunity to capture a coveted demographic. But it poses a dilemma as well.
Skeptical liberals are already looking for signs of betrayal from Mrs. Clinton, making it dangerous for her to make overt or ideological appeals to Republican women. Instead, she is making her case to them by emphasizing kitchen-table issues like job creation and by raising doubts about Mr. Trump’s temperament.
Tellingly, her campaign recently released a commercial in eight swing states aimed at mothers. The ad, which featured cross-legged children watching Mr. Trump’s most controversial statements on their home televisions, ominously asked: “Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?”
Photo Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who said Monday that she would not vote for Mr. Trump in November. Credit Drew Angerer for The New York Times
Democrats acknowledge that, in the end, Mr. Trump may repel Republican women as much as Mrs. Clinton attracts them.
“I really think it’s fueled by an anti-Trump vote,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist. “But that’s fine with me, and I’m pretty sure that’s fine with the campaign.”
But not all those fleeing Mr. Trump are ready to embrace Mrs. Clinton. In interviews, several Republican women, and those who lean Republican, sounded anguished by their choice: frightened by Mr. Trump, but still uncomfortable with Mrs. Clinton.
“I just don’t trust him,” said Carol Hillenbrand, a New York resident who said she had voted Republican in the last two presidential elections. A Clinton skeptic, she is prepared to vote for Gary Johnson, who is running as a Libertarian.
Republican pollsters have long relied on a simple benchmark for their presidential candidates: They must win at least 90 percent of Republicans to capture the White House. But with some polls showing Mr. Trump struggling to attract even 75 percent of Republican women, that could prove an impossible task.
“It’s an unusually poor showing,” said Whit Ayres, a pollster who worked for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “There are not enough men to counterbalance it.”
Mr. Trump draws his deepest support from white men, especially those without a college degree. But he has alienated a growing number of white women, especially those with college degrees, surveys have found. Mrs. Clinton is now leading in that demographic.
“What Trump is doing has never been done before: He is losing college-educated white women,” said Stuart Stevens, Mr. Romney’s chief strategist in 2012 and a critic of Mr. Trump’s campaign.
The danger for Mr. Trump is that the erosion could accelerate as leading Republican women publicly break with him, making an argument that the national interest must supersede party loyalty.
In what has turned into a steady drip, prominent Republican women from the worlds of business and politics have been publicly renouncing Mr. Trump over the past few weeks. Among them: Senator Susan Collins of Maine; Sally Bradshaw, a top aide and strategist to Jeb Bush when he was governor of Florida; and Maria Comella, a former top adviser to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
“We’re Republicans, she’s a Democrat, but the policy disagreements we have are far outweighed by the danger that Donald Trump poses to America,” said Jennifer Pierotti Lim, a lifelong Republican and an executive at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who has pledged her support to Mrs. Clinton and spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
After Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a prominent Republican fund-raiser, declared her allegiance to Mrs. Clinton and her disgust for Mr. Trump, her email inbox was flooded with messages of support — not from Democrats, but from fellow Republicans.
“This Republican is with her, too — thank you, as always, for your leadership, Meg!” a woman named Wendy Jones wrote on Ms. Whitman’s Facebook page.
Of course, Mr. Trump’s campaign rallies still teem with women, and plenty of female Republicans remain devoted to his candidacy, convinced that his presidency would improve their lives and baffled by the defections of party leaders.
Elizabeth Gonzalez, a Trump supporter who lives in North Carolina, questioned the motives of the Republican women who are now speaking out against him.
“They probably feel threatened because he’s an outsider,” she said.
Nick Corasaniti and Megan Thee-Brenan contributed reporting