When Eleanor Schiff, a former domestic policy staffer in George W. Bush’s White House, contemplates her impending vote for Hillary Clinton, she says she’s “stunned.” “If you told me a year ago that I’d be voting for her, I’d say there’s no way,” Schiff tells me. “But I feel that I have to. She’ll do the job. She’s eminently qualified.”
There are a number of Republicans so horrified by Donald Trump that they’re supporting Clinton, the GOP’s longtime nemesis. According to Politico, more GOP defectors are set to go public this week, and the Clinton campaign will soon roll out an official Republicans for Clinton organization to mobilize them. Crucial to this mini-movement are Republican women. In this election, much has been said about the surge of blue-collar men towards Donald Trump. At least as significant, however, has been the rush of white-collar women away from him. According to a new Monmouth University poll, college-educated white women prefer Clinton to Trump by 30 percentage points, 57 percent to 27 percent. (In 2012, Mitt Romney won this demographic by 6 percentage points, 52 percent to 46 percent.) “I think much of that is Republican women voters who simply can’t vote for someone so vile towards women as Donald Trump,” says Meghan Milloy, an employee at a right-leaning think tank who also serves as chairwoman of the group Republican Women for Hillary.
In the past week, four high-profile Republican women have come out in favor of Clinton: longtime Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw, former Chris Christie aide Maria Comella, Hewlett Packard executive Meg Whitman, and former George W. Bush aide Lezlee Westine. None of these women, by themselves, is likely to sway many votes: But they represent a broader distaff repudiation of Trump, who continues to lead with men. “Most Republican women will vote for Trump, because I think most Republicans will vote for Trump,” says Katie Packer, Mitt Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager. “Partisan Republican women tend to act more like partisans than they do like women. But I don’t think he will win Republican women with the numbers that Bush, McCain, and Romney did, and that’s where these elections are won and lost: on the margins.”
Packer says there are several categories of anti-Trump Republican women. Some, she says, “are just giving up on the Republican Party and are saying look, I’ve tried, and now they’ve gone and nominated this guy, I give up. I’m going to go be a Democrat.” Others will vote for Clinton because they think Trump is dangerous—but will return to the GOP after this election. Finally, she says, there are people like her, who can’t see themselves voting for either Trump or Clinton. “I can’t support Trump, but that doesn’t mean I like Hillary any better,” Packer says, “and I want to stick around to try and help rebuild the party. We still hold hope for the party. There’s very broad disgust with Trump, and people are deciding how to handle it in different ways.”
How these disgusted women handle it will help determine what the GOP of the future looks like. When women decide to cast a vote for Clinton, they might develop a degree of loyalty to her. “Once you make the decision that you’re going to be for somebody, you look for reasons to reinforce that,” Packer says. Milloy sees views about Clinton changing among the women she knows: “I talk to a lot of folks that admit they can’t vote for Donald Trump, came over to Hillary, and once they really got to know Hillary as a candidate and as a person, and looked into what she actually stands for, what her policies have been, her work on women’s and children’s issues, I think that they have gotten a better opinion of her.”
This is far from universal among Clinton-voting Republican women. “I’m unenthusiastic about Clinton,” says Kori Schake, a senior adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign who now works as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “I don’t think she was a terrific secretary of state. I think what she did with her emails was illegal and unethical.”
Nevertheless, Clinton has the advantage of not being Trump, whom Schake considers a “genuine danger.” Schake is one of the 50 senior Republican national security officials who published a letter on Monday saying that a Trump presidency would “put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.” Until June, she thought she could be anti-Trump without being pro-Clinton and had planned to write in the name of one of her nephews for president. That changed when Schake saw how voters in the U.K. defied pollsters’ predictions and elected to leave the EU. “When I saw that the polls could be off by that much,” she says, “I genuinely worried that the polls could be off by a lot in this election, and we could all end up with Trump as president because we had indulged the luxury of not voting for Clinton.”
Some Republican women who’ve decided to vote for Clinton find solace in all the things that disgust her left-wing critics. Rina Shah Bharara was elected as a Republican convention delegate in Washington, D.C., but was stripped of her credentials in May after she said on Fox News that she might vote for Clinton over Trump. During her fight to remain a delegate, she says, she signed an affidavit affirming her intention to vote for a Republican in November. She intends to honor that affidavit in a strict sense, but wants Clinton to win—and says she may campaign for her. “I think she’s closer to Republicans than most Republicans think,” Bharara says. “I think her party has gone to the left without her. She’s not looking to go out there as a renegade, like, let me just totally shake things up. I think she errs on the side of caution.” The more Bharara watches Trump, the more attractive Clinton seems. “If there are any more weeks like this past one,” she says, “I may end up at somebody’s door wearing a Hillary shirt.”
If Trump loses the election, one question will be whether the party can win back the women who are bailing on it. Several have been appalled by the way the Republican Party leadership has fallen in line behind a candidate whom they consider outrageously misogynist. “I don’t even know where to start with the disappointment,” says Tiffany Barfield, who worked first for Laura Bush and then in George W. Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services. “How can you stand behind someone who defies everything that you stand for?”
In 2013, the Republican Party released a report about its 2012 failure; it was called the “Growth & Opportunity Project” but colloquially known as the “Republican Autopsy.” (Sally Bradshaw was one of its authors.) Women, it said, “represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections.” Republicans, said the report, “need to make a better effort at listening to female voters, directing their policy proposals at what they learn from women, and communicating that they understand what a woman who is balancing many responsibilities is going through.” Trump has not made good on this strategy, such as it is. After November, some say, it will be time for another reckoning.
“He has said some pretty horrific things about women, and most of our party leadership has embraced him and accepted him,” Packer says. “They’re going to have to answer for that. There’s going to have to be a denunciation of this guy.”