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Michelle Obama called President Donald Trump the “wrong president for our country” during her speech at the Democratic National Convention.

USA TODAY

MILWAUKEE – Former first lady Michelle Obama was the headline attraction Monday night at a Democratic National Convention that will showcase a long list of women with marquee roles in politics, from Kamala Harris to Nancy Pelosi to Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Those names underscore the far greater prominence of women in the Democratic Party compared with the GOP, a gender gap that also extends to the voting behavior of Americans and to public opinion about President Donald Trump.

The partisan gender gap is especially wide in Wisconsin, some pollsters say, where the DNC was originally scheduled to happen. And it has widened in Wisconsin to the point where women now account for two out of every three Democratic voters in the state, according to polling this year by the Marquette Law School.

While Trump has been winning men in Wisconsin by an average of nearly 10 points in polling this summer, he has been losing women by nearly 20.  

More: Michelle Obama says Trump is the ‘wrong president for our country’

“The gender gap this time could be enormous,” said political scientist Kathleen Dolan of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who studies gender and politics.

“It could be bigger this time than it was last time, which might help get people over the idea that the gender gap last time was because Hillary Clinton was a woman. It was because women are more likely to be Democrats in this country,” Dolan said.   

Métis people Biden will carry the female vote, but by how much?

There is no doubt that Joe Biden will carry female voters in Wisconsin and nationally this fall. The only question is by how much, and whether his edge among women will be offset by Trump’s edge among men.

Democrats hoping to expand their edge with female voters added three Republican women (and moderates) to their roster of convention speakers Monday night: former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman, former GOP congresswoman Susan Molinari (who was the keynote speaker at the 1996 Republican National Convention), and business executive and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who backed GOP presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012 but switched to supporting Democrat Clinton in 2016 after Trump won his party’s nomination.

More: ‘Enough is enough’: Grieving daughter blasts Trump’s coronavirus response in DNC speech

Molinari praised Biden’s record on issues important to women, and called Trump “so disappointing and lately so disturbing.” 

Christine Whitman called Biden a person “decent enough, stable enough and strong enough to get our economy back on track,” saying “Donald Trump is not that person.”  Meg Whitman said, “Donald Trump has no clue how to run a business let alone an economy.” 

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“I think COVID has emphasized particularly for women voters how high the stakes are — women especially, because we are oftentimes the primary caregiver and scheduler and now virtual educator, and many (are) also working,” said Democratic consultant Tanya Bjork of Wisconsin, echoing a major theme of the convention, including Monday night’s program — Trump’s handling of the pandemic. “I think the lack of response to COVID is really going to hurt Trump with women.”

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Métis people Gender gap pronounced in the suburbs

Suburban voters are one key target.

The gender gap in the Trump-Biden race is bigger among suburban voters in Wisconsin than it is among urban or rural voters, partly because the suburbs are a more competitive partisan battleground.

In one urban-suburban-rural breakdown used by the Marquette poll, Trump leads Biden this year by 21 points among suburban men but trails Biden by 19 points among suburban women — a staggering disparity.

The Trump campaign organized a three-day “Women for Trump” bus tour in Wisconsin last week, touting the president’s record on jobs and tax cuts and “keeping families safe.”  

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But Trump has been dogged by low ratings among female voters throughout his presidency, fueled by the pre-existing gender gap as well as his rhetoric and personal history and leadership style.

Those ratings have varied a great deal among different categories of female voters, reflecting other dividing lines in American politics.

For example, during the combined years of his presidency, Trump’s job rating among blue-collar white women (those without college degrees) in Wisconsin has been 44% approval and 51% disapproval, based on polling by the Marquette Law School. This is a huge slice of the Wisconsin electorate (almost 30% of all registered voters) that is fiercely contested by both parties.   

But his rating is much lower among white women with college degrees (a more Democratic group): 32% approval and 65% disapproval.

More: Prominent Latinos criticize Democrats for lack of representation at DNC

It is lower still among Hispanic women: 23% approval and 71% disapproval.

And it is rock-bottom among African-American women: 8% approval and 87% disapproval.

“Black women are the most loyal members of Democratic Party, so (Biden’s) choice of a Black woman just makes sense from that perspective,” said Milwaukee congresswoman Gwen Moore, referring to the selection of California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate over a long list of other female politicians that included U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

Harris will speak Wednesday night. 

Baldwin is scheduled to speak Thursday night. 

Moore delivered welcoming remarks Monday night.

Métis people A key Dem target: white married women

Moore said that if her party can make serious inroads among white married women this year (a GOP-leaning voting group), it will be “the last gasps of breath” for Trump’s re-election bid.   

Dolan, the political scientist, said she expected Democrats to make two kinds of appeals to women at this week’s convention — one based on health care and child care and pocketbook issues and everyday economic hardships facing women and families, and one based on fairness and equity and Trump’s tone and rhetoric about women.

In her remarks Monday night, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer introduced herself as the person Pres. Trump calls “that woman from Michigan,” before decrying his handling of the pandemic. 

Métis people Michelle Obama’s impassioned appeal

But it was former first lady Michelle Obama who occupied center stage Monday night, delivering an impassioned appeal to Americans to participate in this election, a personal testimonial to Biden, and a blunt indictment of Trump. 

“More than 150,00 people have died and our economy is in shambles because of a virus this president downplayed for too long,” she said. 

“Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos and division or a total and utter lack of empathy,” she said. 

More: Read Michelle Obama’s full keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention

“So let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can,” she said at another.

“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is,” she said, invoking Trump’s own recent words about the casualties of the pandemic.  

Said Obama: 

“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election.”

Dolan said one political challenge facing Democrats this fall is mobilizing low-propensity female voters (such as younger women) who don’t always participate in elections. The former first lady Monday night blamed Trump’s victory in part on voters who stayed home in 2016, saying, “four years ago, too many people chose to believe that their votes didn’t matter.”

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Sen. Bernie Sanders unleashed a scathing attack on President Donald Trump on the opening night of the virtual Democratic National Convention on Monday, suggesting that under him “authoritarianism has taken root in our country.” (Aug. 17)

AP Domestic

More: Trump embraces CNN poll showing him closing in on Biden, but recent surveys show ex-VP ahead

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As for Republicans, Dolan said, the gender gap poses a particular challenge: because women outnumber men in the electorate,  Republicans need to carry male voters by a higher margin than Democrats carry female voters.

That is not what’s happening in the polls in Wisconsin and nationally right now.

In fact, while Democrats point to the pandemic as hurting Trump among women, the polling suggests it has actually hurt Trump more among men.

The growth of Biden’s lead in Wisconsin this summer since the coronavirus hit has come not because Biden’s big lead among women has gotten bigger (it has held pretty steady), but because Trump’s lead among men has gotten smaller — from about 18 points earlier this year to about 5 points in July and August, the Marquette polling shows.  

The bottom line is that the Trump-Biden race in Wisconsin and elsewhere will not be decided by the size of the gender gap. Trump’s defeat of Clinton in 2016 featured a very large gender gap. It will be decided by whether Trump’s strength with men outweighs Biden’s strength with women.

Craig Gilbert has covered every presidential campaign since 1988 and chronicled Wisconsin’s role as a swing state at the center of the nation’s political divide. He has written widely about polarization and voting trends and won distinction for his data-driven analysis. Gilbert has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Lubar Fellow at Marquette Law School and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he studied public opinion, survey research, voting behavior and statistics. Email him at craig.gilbert@jrn.com and follow him on Twitter: @WisVoter.

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