Donald Trump has never really hit it off with Hannah Hirl but now he needs her more than ever as he strives to overcome what opinion polls show is a growing gender gap dogging his presidency.
Hirl, 26, a college senior from Oskaloosa, Iowa, said she unhappily voted for Trump in 2016 because he opposed abortion and Hillary Clinton did not.
That put Hirl in the category of 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump despite their disagreement over his attitude toward women, and accusations of sexual improprieties.
Hirl is representative of many white female voters in the heartland of America — the swath of states in the nation’s center that swept Trump to victory — who still harbor conflicted thoughts about the president, realizing they could tip the scales for or against him in both the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections.
The observation is based on interviews conducted by reporters for more than 100 local newspapers operated by the CNHI media group in the Midwest, South and the Northeast as phase two of the company’s quarterly “Pulse of the Voters” series tracking political sentiment.
The reporters met with female and male voters of all ages and backgrounds in their homes, coffee shops, restaurants and workplaces in an effort to judge the electoral weight they give to character and traditional American values as they define them.
The informal survey showed there is a gender gap when considering the character and the conduct of a candidate. But it also indicated voters of both genders, even those who identify as deeply religious, often consider issues over conduct when casting their ballots.
Hannah Hirl put it this way: a candidate’s history of morality is “something I think about when I vote. But it is not the main thing I think about when I’m deciding who to vote for.”
Randa Wilson, 51, a hairdresser from Varnell, Georgia, said she asks God for guidance before voting, something she didn’t do until age 40 when she was inspired by Barack Obama’s campaign of hope.
In November 2016, her spirituality moved her to support Trump even though she believed the accusations of bad behavior. She saw evidence of redemption.
“We’ve all made mistakes. That was his past and everybody deserves a second chance,” she said.
That attitude reflects the continued support for Trump among evangelical Christians despite sordid accusations by porn film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy playmate Karen McDougal that they had separate adulterous affairs with Trump before he was elected president.
A Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll in April found that in the wake of Daniels’ appearance on “60 Minutes,” allegiance to Trump among women overall fell from 41 percent to 35 percent, but support among men rose 3 points to 53 percent.
Jason Gillman, 53, of East Bay Township in northwest Michigan, believes the accusations, which Trump denies, were “fabricated. Frankly, as a Christian, I also believe that forgiveness is a major part of what we are as Christians.”
Gary Rogers, pastor of the Grand Assembly of God Church in Chickasha, Okla., said he has mixed feelings about Trump’s morality yet he voted for him because of his “America First” approach and embrace of the military.
“I don’t care for his morality at all,” Rogers said. “I don’t like anything about things that he’s said” regarding his moral conduct.
Brenna Bell, a recent graduate of Ardmore High School in rural Alabama, said Daniels was right to share her history with Trump on national television. Bell took issue with critics who say Daniels’ story was motivated by publicity and money.
“Men get mad when girls try to tell the truth about them,” said Bell, who will be first-time voter in November. “That comes back to no one takes women seriously.”
Tim Gungoll, a registered Republican and attorney in Enid, Okla., doesn’t believe there is a gender gap in today’s politics, only a difference in who speaks for women.
“There are a lot of more radicalized women, and they tend to be the ones that are in politics,” he said.
He’d prefer women from a traditional family background speak up and get involved in politics.
There’s no pushback on that point from Barbara Schmader, 85, a Trump supporter from Valdosta, Georgia. She doesn’t agree with the #metoo movement, but does encourage women to run for public office, opining they would be “less inclined to join the good old boys clubs. They would govern honestly.”
As for the #metoo campaign to expose harassment and abuse of women, she remarked: “When I grew up and someone did something wrong, you either told your parents, or you told somebody, or you beat the crap out of them.”
Trump’s focus on what he promotes as his political values — tax cuts, deregulation, secure borders, tougher trade policies — prompted varied responses.
Robbie Cannon, a former U.S. Marine, interpreted those values as “family, country, God, honesty, hard work and responsibility.”
He said Trump embodies most of them. “I don’t think he’s morally unfit, but I don’t believe he’s a saint, either.”
Liecha Collins, 56, a registered nurse and conservative Christian from small town Undilla, New York, characterized traditional values as “marriage between a man and a women, welcoming immigrants who come through the front door, and the principle of hard work.” And that, she adds, is why she supports President Trump.
Shannon McGinley, a mother of five from Bedford, New Hampshire, questioned Trump’s values, saying he is not a good role model for her children. Nonetheless, she voted for him and continues her support because he is expanding religious liberty and restricting abortion rights. She’s also benefiting from the federal tax-cut law that went into effect Jan. 1.
“He’s made some bad choices in his personal life,” said McGinley, the executive director of a conservative religious group. “The dichotomy is that he’s doing a lot of good things. I also think we have to be merciful and understand that people can change.”
Morgan Mullins, 32, a Democrat from rural Morehead, Kent., said American values are inscribed in the Declaration of Independence — “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those are some of the first really strong American words I had drilled into me, and they have stuck with me.”
Frank and Pattie Rocco, Trump loyalists from Transfer, Penn., points to his wealth as a real estate developer and reality TV producer before he became president as proof of his loyalty to his country and the pursuit of happiness.
“He is a very rich man, and he loves the country,” Frank Rocco said. “He could be in the Bahamas drinking margaritas and enjoying his life instead of putting up with all this slander that’s coming at him. But he’s doing it because he has a family here and he loves this country.”
That’s not the way Jan Flowers, a retired Mabank, Texas, school teacher, sees the president and his core constituency.
“I’m not sure that we still have traditional American values,” she said. “Trump supporters seem to want to drag us back to the ‘50s when it was great to be white, middle class and religious. They want to squeeze anyone not in the core group out.”
Flowers said there definitely is a voter gap in America’s body politic, and one reason is women feel more empowered.
“Educated women who can think will factor gender issues when they vote,” she said. “I agree with Barbara Bush — how could any woman vote for Trump?”
Bill Ketter is senior vice president of news for CNHI. Contact him at email@example.com.