TAMPA — They crammed into a convention center room by the hundreds and quickly scooped up the pink, white and blue signs waiting for them. They saluted Susan B. Anthony and Betsy Ross, and celebrated the 99th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the one that finally guaranteed women the right to vote.
“Be part of every conversation,” they were told.
“All issues are women’s issues.”
This was not a meeting of pink-hatted protesters headed to a Women’s March. It was a Thursday night event at the Tampa Convention Center for President Donald Trump’s most loyal female supporters, part of a nationwide push to galvanize the women who backed him in 2016 and rally them for a 2020 fight.
They practiced taking selfies and were instructed how to tag them on social media with #LeadRight. They learned how to register someone to vote and talk to neighbors about the election.
“We want to disprove the myth that women aren’t for Trump,” said Evella Feldhacker, a Lakewood Ranch retiree, head to toe in Trump-branded gear and first in line by noon to attend the evening rally. “We are here.”
White women voters are Trump’s greatest electoral vulnerability standing between him and another four years. Once a surprising piece of the coalition that catapulted him into office, they shifted again in 2018 and helped put Democrats back in charge of the U.S. House. It is early, but polls show Trump is underwater with white women, even ones without college degrees.
But inside the Tampa Convention Center, no one believed the polls. The line to get in snaked through corridors, as women — overwhelmingly white — waited to hear from two of Trump’s leading female surrogates: former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and top adviser Kellyanne Conway.
After a prayer and the pledge and a brief introduction from Bondi and Conway, the phone rang. It was the White House. Trump was on the line. The place went nuts.
“We won with women," Trump said over the speaker system. “We’re doing great with women, despite the fake news.”
The Trump campaign is banking that there are many women out there like Lori Johnson.
The Land O’Lakes mortgage professional and 48-year-old mother of three said she can put aside her social views and the day-to-day reality show in D.C. because the Trump economy is working for her.
“I care about my paycheck, my children’s future and that my retirement keeps growing,” Johnson said. “Everything else just falls where it may. The way he talks doesn’t bother me at all.”
The Republican’s reelection team held 14 Women for Trump events in cities across the country Thursday, with a message tailored around job growth. The historically low national unemployment for women, 3.9 percent, was wielded like a weapon. Other Trump policies aimed at women, like his vague support for paid family leave, were mentioned only in passing on Thursday.
The economy, Conway told the audience, is “more important than approval polls.”
Democrats, especially those running for president, have countered that many have been left behind by Trump’s economy. Wage growth has not kept up with executive pay after the Trump tax cuts, they have argued in debates. Meanwhile, the stock market is in a constant state of flux as Trump tweets the latest maneuvers of his trade war with China, and some economists are warning there are early signs of the R-word: recession.
Will the message to women change if those worries come to pass before Election Day? To the Trump campaign, it’s not even worth a discussion.
“We don’t see a slowdown on the horizon,” Trump spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told the Tampa Bay Times this week. “We totally reject a media narrative about a recession. We think the economy is going to stay strong.”
Democrats intend to take the fight to other issues women care about, like access to education, employment rights, healthcare, gun violence and the environment, said state party spokeswoman Caroline Rowland. Democrats are holding women voter summits and organizer training in hopes of turning the state blue again in 2020.
“Democratic women are and continue to be the most motivated group of voters," Rowland said, "and will be the deciding factor in ensuring Donald Trump is one-term president.”
Three out of five white women in Florida voted for Trump in 2016, according to exit polls. Even women with college degrees, typically a Democratic stronghold, went for Trump here and helped him win the state by 113,000 votes.
Those educated female voters flipped in 2018, and 57 percent of them voted for Democrat Andrew Gillum for governor. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed even white women without college degrees would vote for a Democrat over Trump next year, a reversal that, if it holds, would mean trouble for Trump in many swing states.
Meanwhile, women across the state and country have entered politics for the first time, motivated by Trump’s rhetoric, his dismantling of the Affordable Care Act and his selection of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
A historic wave of women won elections to Congress and the Florida state Legislature. They also flipped local offices, like the Hillsborough County Commission seats won by Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith. Democrat Nikki Fried became the first female elected as Florida’s agriculture commissioner.
Now, a record number of women are seeking the Democratic nomination for president and it is possible, if not likely, the party’s next standard bearer or their running mate will be a female.
“The worst thing we could do is go all white male. There needs to be a women on a ticket,” said Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Hillsborough County. “This election is going to go through women and it’s going to be decided by women.”
Florida, though, has so far not experienced a surge in white women signing up as Democrats. They make up about 60 percent of new female voter registrants since 2016, close to the same as before Trump’s election. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won 57 percent of white women without college degrees last year, better than the GOP fared in other key swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, though lower than Trump’s performance in 2016.
Trump’s support among white women is noticeably stronger in Florida than other states, said Paula Dockery, a former Republican lawmaker-turned-leading Trump critic. But if the needle continues to shift even slightly in this tightly contested swing state, it would spell doom for the president, she said.
“There are a lot of women who didn’t like him much the first go around but stuck with voting for the Republican,” Dockery said. “And after almost three years in office, I don’t think they can stomach voting for him again.”
Over the phone in Tampa, Trump scoffed at these kinds of assumptions.
“It’s going to be easier than last time,” he declared. Then, he quickly added: “But let’s pretend it’s going to be tougher.”
Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.