Donald Trump has cooled his feud with Fox News host Megyn Kelly and made other moves to improve his horrible ratings from women voters, but PR professionals doubt whether anything the Republican presidential front-runner does at this point can undo his reputation for sexism and misogyny.
Mr. Trump’s unpopularity among female voters — with some national polls showing as many as 75 percent of women dislike him — has emerged as a major obstacle to his White House bid and a top reason given by the GOP’s #NeverTrump movement for blocking him from the nomination.
After insisting for months that he doesn’t have a problem with women voters, Mr. Trump has begun taking modest steps to soften his image, including accepting Ms. Kelly’s request to meet this week.
“She came up to Trump Tower and we talked about things, and I think we had a very good conversation,” Mr. Trump said in an interview that aired Thursday on the Fox News program “Fox & Friends.”
His tone was strikingly subdued compared to his monthslong feud with Ms. Kelly that he waged on social media, including retweeting a message that described her as a “bimbo.”
On her show Wednesday evening, Ms. Kelly said that Mr. Trump was “gracious enough” to accept her request.
“We met for about an hour just the two of us, and had a chance to clear the air,” she said. “Mr. Trump and I discussed the possibility of an interview, and I hope we will have news to announce on that soon.”
The spat erupted at the first GOP debate when Ms. Kelly questioned Mr. Trump’s ability to woo female voters given his history of calling women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals.”
It went downhill from there. Those insults and more harsh words that Mr. Trump has directed at women came back to haunt him in TV attack ads.
To improve his image, Mr. Trump this week also deployed his daughters, Ivanka and Tiffany Trump, and his wife, Melania, to show him in a more positive light.
“His actions speak louder than the words of many politicians who talk about gender equality,” Ivanka Trump said when asked by her father’s negative image during a CNN town hall.
“I have witnessed these incredible female role models that he has employed in the highest executive positions at the Trump Organization my entire life in an industry that has been dominated by men,” she said. “He was employing some of these women and raising them through the ranks.”
Sam Singer, a public relations guru in San Francisco who is known as “The Fixer,” said Mr. Trump was taking a textbook approach to repairing a damaged image — but it probably won’t be good enough.
“It is too little, too late for this tactic to be successful for Mr. Trump,” he said. “Donald Trump has created an image, in particular in women’s minds, of a bully or even an abusive husband or abusive mate, and that’s literally impossible to overcome.”
Melissa Baratta, senior vice president at the New York-based PR firm Affect, agreed.
“At this point in the election it’s likely too late to turn the tide of female voters. This process really should’ve started a year ago — with his first offensive misstep,” she said.
Still, Ms. Baratta advised that an apology never hurt anyone in terms of reputation building.
“While he may never truly recover, there are certainly some things he can do now to sway voters as well as potentially rebuild his image for the long term,” Ms. Baratta said. “Apologizing in a meaningful way for offensive comments, hiring more women, supporting women’s causes and communicating more thoughtfully with women going forward would help demonstrate a turnaround and position him in a more positive light.”
Other consultants suggested that Mr. Trump should tone down his rhetoric and offer more substantive policy solutions for issues women care about, such as health care, the economy and cost of living.
In addition to those moves, Mr. Singer said that Mr. Trump should spend more a lot more time getting prominent women who are well respected to endorse him or at least say they have an open mind toward his candidacy.
“All those three things I think are going to be extremely difficult for him to do,” he said.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly suffered self-inflicted wounds when it comes to garnering support from women. In the last few weeks, he engaged in a “wives fight” with rival Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and retweeted an unflattering photograph of his wife, Heidi, juxtaposed with a photo of his supermodel wife, Melania.
Soon after that, he proposed “punishing” women for getting illegal abortions, a position he quickly reversed amid backlash from both pro-life and pro-choice forces.
Mr. Trump got some good news Thursday when a Florida prosecutor announced that he was dropping charges of simple battery against Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was accused of manhandling a female reporter at a press conference.
The charges had given critics more ammunition to accuse Mr. Trump of fostering abusive attitudes toward women.
“The challenge he has is that the incidents have been on a frequent basis over an extended period of time,” said Republican campaign strategist David Winston. “He’s taking some of the obvious necessary steps. Having said that, he’s created such a terrible situation for himself that it’s unclear whether he can generate the movement he would like.”
He noted Mr. Trump’s historically high negative scores from women, who make up about 51 percent of general election voters.
“He starts from a very difficult position in the sense that any time he comes on the screen, 70 or 75 percent of women say, ‘Oh, there’s that guy’s I don’t like,’ ” Mr. Winston said. “In politics, you never say never. But let’s just say this is one of the more dire situations I’ve seen for any political candidate.”
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