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Is Donald Trump Playing The 'Man Card'?

A volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves a card in a front door as he canvasses a neighborhood in New Hampshire.
David Goldman
A volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves a card in a front door as he canvasses a neighborhood in New Hampshire.

Could gender be a decisive factor in a general-election matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

"You know, she's playing the woman's card," Trump told supporters at a rally in Spokane, Wash., over the weekend, reiterating a critique he has used against Clinton since becoming the de facto presidential nominee for the Republican Party. "If she didn't play the woman's card she would have no chance, I mean zero, of winning."

But some experts see Trump's comments about women as a veiled warning for men.

The gender gap in American politics is nothing new; men and women often don't see eye to eye when they vote.

"In every presidential election since 1980, women have been more likely than men to support the Democratic candidate," said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.

This year, that traditional gender gap seems to be growing into a gender gulf.

Polls show about 70 percent of women currently have an unfavorable opinion of Trump.

Usually, in elections, Lawless says the gender gap strategy is easy to explain.

"What the Democrats want to do is make sure they drive up that support among female voters," she said. "And what the Republicans want to do is close that gap to the best of their ability."

But Trump's tactics are difficult to define.

In a rally over the weekend, Trump took his claim that Clinton is using the woman's card further.

"She's going — did you hear that that Donald Trump raised his voice while speaking to a woman," he said. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I mean all of the men — we're petrified to speak to women anymore; we may raise our voice."

Trump then continued with a new complaint.

"You know what? The women get it better than we do, folks," he said.

The comment seemed counterintuitive for a man trying to improve his status with female voters. But Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey who focuses on political psychology, says Trump's talk about women is not about women: It's a message directed at men.

"This is an appeal, saying basically to other men — 'Hey, the women are ganging up on us, the women are using their gender to get power from us' — that's what the woman card is — 'all the women are gonna get together and vote for Hillary Clinton, we have to band together as men to stop Hillary Clinton.' "

Cassino says Trump is playing on gender resentment.

And Cassino's research has found that gender roles make a difference for some voters. In a recent recent presidential poll, he conducted an experiment, asking voters this question:

"There are an increasing number of households in which the woman makes more money than the man. How about in your household?"

Cassino discovered that when men were asked that spouse income question at the beginning of the poll they were more likely to support Trump over Clinton, regardless of the actual answer to the income question.

The mere question seemed to provoke a gender role threat, according to Cassino.

But gender bias cuts both ways.

After Trump's comments about the woman's card, Clinton used the attack as a hugely successful fundraiser — selling pink "woman cards" and "deal me in" T-shirts. Her campaign brought in $2.4 million in just a few days.

"It certainly is appealing to donors and political activists," said Lawless. "That kind of messaging can be helpful for a Democrat, and particularly a Democratic female candidate."

If Clinton is playing the woman card by focusing on pay equity or child care, said Kelly Dittmar with the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, "then, surely, Donald Trump has been playing the man card, by talking about the ways in which his opponents are, in fact, not masculine enough for the office."

"There's been multiple ways that Donald Trump's sort of played his own man card," Dittmar said. "Just by talking about the size of his manhood, in the most direct and overt ways, but he's also taken on the tactic of talking about other candidates as weak or little, like 'Little Marco,' and even making fun of Jeb Bush for needing his mommy, infantilizing Jeb Bush."

Dittmar says Trump also uses the man card by playing into stereotypes about aggression — with his tough talk of building a wall or bombing the s*** out of ISIS.

Of course, the big question is — does all this messaging have an effect on voter turnout?

Deborah Jordan Brooks at Dartmouth College has studied the link between gender, voter participation and negative ads. She's hesitant to use her historical research to hypothesize about the current presidential election; she says Trump vs. Clinton would be unpredictable.

But her research in the past offers some clues; and because no one else has recently studied this connection, it's probably the best guide we have.

Brooks found women weren't really affected one way or the other by negative campaigns. But men were.

"Independent men were especially likely to vote after seeing uncivil negative messages — the kinds of attacks that throw in extra insults."

In other words, insults seem to mobilize men.

"Incivility produced a real gender difference between men and women; men seemed to like it."

Republicans usually try to shrink the gender gap by courting women. But maybe Trump has calculated that it makes more sense to embrace his gender gap and focus on men.

Of course, the caveat is that by talking to men, Trump could also unintentionally energize Democratic men — who would be eager to vote against him.

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Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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